After the 1991 general election which was dominated by the Ram temple issue and which saw the BJP emerge as the prime force in Uttar Pradesh, The Economist magazine carried an article evocatively entitled “The winner came second”. In the aftermath of the Maharashtra Assembly election that saw the Congress-NCP alliance squeak through to a bare majority, albeit with a reduced vote share, many analysts may be tempted to conclude that this time “The winner came fifth”.
There is no doubt that Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have managed an impressive debut, winning nearly six per cent of the popular vote and 13 seats. The aggregate figures don’t do justice to the MNS’s focussed intervention: It won eight seats and secured 19.8 per cent of the vote in Greater Mumbai. Considering that the Marathi manoos make up nearly 35 per cent of India’s most important urban cluster, a rough calculation would suggest that Raj was endorsed by at least his target constituency. Of course, this is based on the assumption that he neither sought nor gained the support of the non-Marathi manoos.
By any reckoning, this is a spectacular debut and made more significant by the fact that the MNS effect was felt in Greater Mumbai and Pune. That is why there can be an iota of sympathy for BJP leaders who claim the alliance was robbed of nearly 40 seats by Raj-seats that invariably added to the Congress-NCP kitty. Without these urban seats, the ruling coalition would not have secured a majority.
However, to claim that Raj was the Congress’s Trojan horse is unfair. The Congress may have benefited from the entry of another player that cut into the Shiv Sena-BJP votes but this vote-splitting will remain a part of the game as long as the first-past-the-post system exists. Of course, the Congress-NCP was also happy to indulge Raj because it undermined Uddhav Thackeray and the Shiv Sena. But these tactical manoeuvres cannot take away the fact that Raj did appeal to the beleaguered Marathi manoos of urban Maharashtra far more effectively than the Uddhav-led Shiv Sena could manage. Whereas Uddhav was trying to enlarge the social base of the Shiv Sena and transform it into a conventional regional party, Raj was appealing to the core instincts of the old Shiv Sena. The results showed that Uddhav’s social expansion scheme was undercut by losses in the Shiv Sena’s original strongholds. The Shiv Sena may have been reduced to fourth place, even below the BJP, but in terms of social reach and potential it is still well ahead of the MNS.
Yet, the MNS was an effective spoiler, just as it was in the Lok Sabha election. That Raj was unlikely to be a claimant for power was well known to Greater Mumbai’s Marathi manoos. Simultaneously, the same Marathi manoos was also aware that the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance had a very fair chance to oust a non-performing Congress-NCP alliance. So why did half of the Marathi manoos in Greater Mumbai conclude that it was better to fly the MNS flag and give a leg up to Raj rather than elect an alternative Government? This is the real question that Uddhav and the BJP must reflect on.
To attribute voting behaviour to Raj’s charisma and oratory alone gives a misleading picture. After the Lok Sabha poll, the 18.4 per cent of voters in Greater Mumbai who voted for the MNS could have decided that it was time to vote in a Government that was more sensitive to regional aspirations or persist with an ineffectual protest vote. That this chunk of the Marathi manoos chose to persist with Raj is revealing and suggests insufficient faith in the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance.
It is this erosion of faith that should be agitating the minds of Uddhav and the State BJP leadership. If the 60 seats of Greater Mumbai are excluded from the calculations, the Congress-NCP alliance won 118 seats against 72 seats for the Shiv Sena-BJP in the rest of the State. Moreover, in all the regions, the Congress-NCP was ahead of the Shiv Sena-BJP in popular votes. The only region where the Shiv Sena-BJP outpolled the Congress-NCP was, ironically, Mumbai.
These figures bolster the claim that the Congress-NCP didn’t necessarily win the election by default. Except in Mumbai, the ruling coalition held on to its traditional advantage. Indeed, compared to the Lok Sabha poll, it actually improved its position in Konkan, Vidarbha and Marathwada. It was good luck and MNS that came to its assistance in Mumbai.
The results suggest that the Shiv Sena-BJP were a casualty of the larger loss of momentum that seems to be afflicting the NDA and the BJP in particular. The Congress has consistently nourished its own social constituency through a combination of Centrally-funded welfare schemes and symbolism (Rahul Gandhi’s cultivation of Dalits being a prime example). By contrast, having lost the youth and middle class vote to the Congress in the Lok Sabha election, the BJP has gone into denial. It is too preoccupied with abstruse ideological issues and inter-personal conflicts that have absolutely no bearing on shared lived experiences. The Sangh Parivar rallied behind the BJP purposefully in this election but its organisational clout didn’t make any significant difference. That is because elections aren’t won by booth committees but by the popular mood. That is where the real disconnect lies.
There is little point in blaming Raj for depriving the Shiv Sena-BJP of an election victory that wasn’t theirs in the first place.