Mumbai: Maharashtra, India’s second largest state with a population exceeding 112 million, as per Census 2011, goes to poll on October 21, 2019, along with Haryana. As many as 89.5 million electors will cast their votes in Maharashtra, which will be counted on October 24, 2019.

Home to the country's financial capital, Mumbai, India’s richest state Maharashtra contributes about 14% to the country’s gross domestic product. The state’s economy is expected to grow by 7.5% during 2018-19, above the national growth rate of 6.8%, according to the Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2018-19. One of India’s most urbanised states, more than 45% of Maharashtra’s population lives in towns and cities, up from 42% in 2001.

In the 2014 state elections, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party had won 122 (42%) of the 288 seats in the legislative assembly and its ally Shiv Sena, 63 (22%). The Congress won 42 or 15% seats, while its alliance partner Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) won 41 or 14%. In the state election preceding that, in 2009, the Congress and the NCP won 82 (28%) and 62 (22%) seats, respectively, to form the government.

The Maharashtra and Haryana state elections are the first to be held after the general elections of April-May 2019 when the BJP was voted in at the Centre by an overwhelming majority. Since coming to power, the government has taken some major political and administrative decisions such as the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, passage of the triple talaq bill, amendment of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and dilution of the Right to Information Act.

The results of these state assembly elections will affect the membership of the Rajya Sabha (parliament’s upper house)--of the 245 seats in the Rajya Sabha, Maharashtra has 19, the second most after Uttar Pradesh (31).

“Overall, my sense is that this is going to be one of the more uninteresting elections in the state,” Suhas Palshikar, a Pune-based political commentator and chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics, told us in an interview about the factors that could affect the Maharashtra elections. Unless the acceleration of corruption charges against the NCP president Sharad Pawar puts off a significant section of voters, “one can safely expect a decent victory for the ruling combine, particularly for the BJP”, Palshikar predicted.

The state has witnessed extreme climate conditions in recent times--both droughts and floods--which has affected livelihoods and taken a toll on the state’s economy. However, issues relating to climate change, forest conservation and disaster preparedness are likely to be overshadowed by the rhetoric around nationalism, said Palshikar, 62, the director of Lokniti, a research programme on comparative democracy, based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.

Excerpts from our email interview:

The political debate between the BJP and the Congress-NCP has been heating up in recent days. How do you see the Maharashtra elections shaping up?

Overall, my sense is that this is going to be one of the more uninteresting elections in the state.

By speeding up corruption cases and attempting to isolate Sharad Pawar, the state government appears to be making the election interesting. That is, if the voters perceive a politics of vendetta here, the ruling parties might have to pay the price. Otherwise, one can safely expect a decent victory for the ruling combine, particularly for the BJP.

What will be the major issues in this state election?

The Congress and NCP will surely focus on drought, natural disasters and their management besides the overall condition of farmers. The other issues for the opposition would be the lack of job opportunities. On the other hand, the BJP appears to have a three-pronged strategy in defining election issues--Modi's personality, nationalism and the performance of the (ruling) Fadnavis government. If seen beyond party considerations, stagnation and economic slowdown are key issues that have marked the last five years. Also, state elections have more propensity to be caste-focused and the state government has ensured a more caste-based orientation on the part of the voters. Therefore, it will not be surprising if assembly elections get focused more on caste identity and caste-specific considerations--of (voter’s) share in power and policy benefits.

The recent floods in Maharashtra caused huge damage to life and property while a drought hit several pockets of the state. Will the issues of disaster preparedness and the impact of climate change on agriculture have any electoral significance?

The way the state's policies have shaped up over time, the state is waiting for natural disasters to turn into man-made calamities. However, this is common to all parties and the middle and upper classes, in particular, are oblivious to [the] effects of such calamities. So, this critical issue is unlikely to have political traction during the elections.

Cities are facing issues like growing population and urban migration. Are city voters likely to vote against the poor growth of urban infrastructure and subsequent problems such as traffic congestion, waterlogging, poor roads and so on?

As mentioned above, cities are sitting on volcanoes of mismanagement, disrespect to nature and corruption. But urban politics is mired in corruption and unlikely to focus on real issues. The colossal exploitation of Mumbai's resources by the ruling parties is a case in point. Their apathy allows parties to adopt a political economy of ideological bankruptcy and (the) suicidal lure of false promises of development. Ideas of smart cities and emotional appeals of pseudo-nationalism are going to be used for camouflaging these burning issues.

Unemployment is at a 45-year high. The loss of over 350,000 jobs in the automobile sector--and thousands elsewhere--could jeopardise India’s demographic dividend (working-age population of 688 million people). How are the young likely to vote?

Again, objectively speaking, the youth are being taken for a ride--avenues of jobs and livelihood resources are shrinking. But there is no political agency that has the ability or interest to mobilise the youth on genuine issues. Secondly, for [the] past five years, the energies of the youth and the possibilities of the social media have been systematically diverted to the so-called ideas of nationalism. And the BJP's repeated statements about J&K and the abrogation of Article 370 suggest that the youth will continue to be misled by the emotive appeal [of these subjects].

The general sense is that the BJP-Shiv Sena combine is coming back to power. Do you see any possibility of the Congress-NCP alliance returning to power in the state? What about the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray?

Since the Lok Sabha elections, nothing has happened to indicate any negative trends against the BJP-Sena alliance; nothing has happened to indicate the revival of the Congress and the NCP--in fact, all trends point to the contrary. In such situations, genuine dissatisfaction gets channelised through smaller parties and hence the MNS and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) may have an opportunity to make their mark this election. Of course, they do not have the ability to threaten the ruling coalition in a serious manner.

Vidarbha and Marathwada are faced with chronic issues of underdevelopment, drought, water scarcity and farmer suicides. Maharashtra reported 611 farmer suicides in three months, between January and March 2019. Amravati in Vidarbha reported the most suicides, 227, followed by Aurangabad (198) in Marathwada. Will these regions vote differently?

The BJP being in power and its chief minister coming from Vidarbha is a major asset for the ruling alliance and it counterbalances the backwardness of Vidarbha. Marathwada has been volatile for [the] past quarter of a century and hence both the Congress and the VBA can exploit the situation there; but the communal appeal and hold of the BJP-Sena leaders from Marathwada appears quite strong at the moment. After all, politics requires serious intervention in the war of perception and it is there that the Congress and the NCP have not much ability to swing the outcome of the elections.

(Mallapur is a senior analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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