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The Limits of Ambition
Thursday October 8, 2009
In the brink of another election, Maharashtra presents that enduring paradox: a spectacularly malgoverned state, that has, with one exception, elected Congress governments since its inception. (In this, it holds a record of sorts - no other major state in India has been so consistently ruled by the Congress).

It is, by general consensus, a great lost opportunity. Perhaps the most emblematic example of squandered greatness is Maharashtra's employment guarantee scheme, conceived in the famine years of the early seventies and subsequently the template for the UPA's national flagship. The EGS was, quite apart from its intent, a remarkable attempt to bridge wealthy, highly urbanised Maharashtra and its impoverished rural interior : the funds for the scheme were raised through professional tax.

About 3 decades on, Maharashtra's EGS has come to represent much of the failed promise of one of India's most progressive states: corruption, unspent funds, unpaid labour, incomplete works. Almost every CAG report is a familiar indictment: a  2006 report finds that 'registration of labour is incomplete', 'scheme has not met targets', 'of the 10,000 crores collected for the scheme, only 4677 crores have been spent' and so on. In 2005 , a whistle-blowing collector in Solapur who unearthed massive rigging in the local EGS rolls faced an escalating level of official aggression that culminated in the chief minister's office.

The riddle of the Congress success, then,  in the face of a fairly unimpressive track record becomes clearer by examining the behaviour of Maharashtra's sub-regions over the past 3 elections. In the past two elections, in 4 of the 6 regions  : Khandesh (north Maharashtra), Vidharbha, Marathwada  and the Konkan- the Sena-BJP are either in a direct standoff, or have edged ahead of their rivals.

Take the 2009 Lok Sabha elections projected as assembly segments: the cumulative Sena-BJP lead in these 4 regions is  26 seats. But their losses in Mumbai and Western Maharashtra more than offset their gains: the Sena-BJP trailed here by 35 seats. The pattern is much the same in 2004: a margin of only 4 seats in Khandesh, Marathwada, Konkan and Vidharbha, but a gamechanging Congress-NCP lead of 28 seats in Mumbai and Western Maharashtra sealed the result. 6 districts in Maharashtra's sugar heartland, and its teeming megapolis: each for a completely distinct set of reasons, have come to represent the limits of saffron ambition.

The origins of saffron ambition in Maharashtra are relatively recent. Up until the mid-eighties, the Shiv Sena was a party  (in the loosest possible sense of the term) of Mumbai and the Konkan, and the BJP had a presence in Thane and Pune. Their gateway into the rest of Maharashtra was the protests over the renaming of the Marathwada University in Aurangabad after Ambedkar.  The Sena's violent  opposition to the renaming won them the Aurangabad municipality, their first taste of success outside the Western coastline.
Their future ally, the BJP, was at the helm of the pro-renaming protests, led by a young (by the standards of Indian politics) Gopinath Munde . Munde went to jail, and emerged to instant celebrity as the leader of a nascent OBC-Dalit coalition, a parallel axis to the feudal, Maratha -dominated Congress. Beed, Munde's home district, is even today a BJP island in a region awash with past and present Congress chief ministers.

The Marathwada experiment was repeated with some variation in North Maharashtra (or Khandesh), where  the BJP looked for political growth outside the Congress's tribal bastions of Nandurbar and Dhule. Their northern 'Munde' was Eknath Khadse, a Leuva Patil, a community with considerable influence in Jalgaon. Khadse, quite  apart from driving the party's rise in the north, one of the few BJP leaders known for his neutrality in a state unit polarised between Munde-Nitin Gadkari factions. Meanwhile the Sena charted its own inroads into Khandesh, largely built around seizing control of the Nasik municipality.The Sena's Nasik mascot : Raj Thackeray, at that time very much the inheritor of his uncle's mantle.

The rise of the Sena - BJP in Vidharbha resists easy analysis: the BJP's ascendancy is ascribed partly to the spillover of its successes in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, partly to its support for separate statehood for Vidharbha (again, opposed by the Sena), partly to the RSS's Nagpur origins, and partly to Nitin Gadkari's reputation within the region as the man who transformed Nagpur.

The Sena, whose son-of-the-soil politics had little traction in Hindi-speaking Vidharbha, piggybacked on the BJP's older presence , much as the BJP leveraged the Sena's base in Mumbai and Konkan. Bal Thackeray's  envoy to Vidharbha was Diwakar Raote, currently an MLC from Mumbai, noted for his padyatra's on the crisis of the region's cotton growers and over an unfair minimum support price for cotton.The BSP's entry into Vidharbha - in 2004, they played spoiler in about 30 assembly segments - further weakened the Congress.
As they gradually expanded into newer territories, the saffron alliance lost vital ground at home, for reasons so heavily analysed - the  BJP -Sena's inability to adapt to the shifting demographics of  Mumbai, Raj Thackeray etc - that it hardly bears repetition. Enough to say that in 2009, the BJP -Sena led in only 7 of Mumbai's 36 assembly segments, their worst performance in nearly 15 years.    

Western Maharashtra remains possibly the only region where the BJP or the Sena cannot claim to have made any serious inroads, or thrown up a leader of repute (barring disgruntled imports from the Congress or the NCP, like Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil, who after a brief flirtation with the Sena returned to the Congress).

Most of the region's mini-oligarchs unhappy with their parent party would prefer to contest as independents rather than cross over. The family of Harshvardhan Patil, the Minister of  Marketing, who fights and wins as an independent from Indapur in Baramati district, has controlled that seat since 1952, as they do the local dairy, sugar cooperative, college, bank etc. He told me that in every generation, one family member has to make 'a supreme sacrifice'. You mean by becoming a doctor ? I asked. No, he said, by joining politics. Hardly surprising then, that the  Congress - NCP's greatest losses in the sugar belt have come from the likes of powerful independents like Vinay Kore or rebels like Sadashiv Mandlik, all of the same stock of district-level oligarch's.

The Kore family, for instance , has interests in colleges in engineering, arts and science, dentistry , agri-processing, a fruit pulp factory, a paper factory, and a distillery where industrial alcohol is made .The Sena's wins in the 2009 Lok Sabha in Maval, Shirur and Shirdi, all at the expense of the NCP, has been cause for greater optimism, as, cynically, have been the tensions caused by the Ganesh Chaturthi riots in Sangli and Kolhapur. But privately, most Sena leaders admit that they are an OBC party (with a handful of Brahmins in leadership positions), a reputation that makes them uninteresting to the Maratha aristocrats who control the sugar factories, and therefore the politics of Western Maharashtra.

And so there it is , in a nutshell: the Congress-NCP's last line of defense, an unlikely coalition of north Indian migrants, Maratha sugar barons, and tribals. Cross this barrier , and the Sena -BJP have a shot at power. Fail, and the paradox of the Congress success in Maharashtra will endure.
Fight for Mumbai: What are the real issues? 
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Sreenivasan Jain is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7.
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