Panchayat polls: Uddhav-led Sena routed for dumping Hindutva, pandering to Islamists

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Last week, results of elections for sarpanch of 547 gram panchayats spread across 17 out of total 35 districts in Maharashtra were announced. 274 candidates supported by the BJP and 41 candidates backed by the Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena won the elections. The BJP-Eknath Sena candidates won 315 seats, which is a thumping majority. In these direct polls to elect village sarpanches that were also held along with gram panchayat elections, more than 50% of the newly-elected sarpanches are from the BJP–Eknath Sena alliance. While the BJP stood first, the Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena stood third in the elections. The Sharad Pawar-led NCP stood second, whereas Sonia and Rahul Gandhi led Congress was fourth in seat count, followed by the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena that stood last–i.e. fifth in the elections. These gram panchayat elections results highlight a total rout of the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena, while the BJP has won majority of the seats, proving its popularity on the ground. This has come as a huge shocker for the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena. Uddhav Thackarey’s son and former Environment Minister of Maharashtra, Aditya Thackarey had conducted numerous rallies across the state. Add to that they forged an alliance with the Sambhaji Brigade. This alliance was largely to attract Maratha votes towards the fledgling party. Yet the candidates of the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena could not cut ice with the voters and the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena stood last in the elections. This highlights the weakening of the Uddhav Thackarey faction of the Shiv Sena in the interiors and rural areas of Maharashtra. Compared to the Uddhav Thackarey faction, the Eknath Shinde faction stands on a stronger wicket.
The election results send two big messages to the Uddhav Thackarey Sena faction. First is that Uddhav Thackarey dumping Hindutva and pandering to Islamists has hurt a large section of its supporter base. The brand of Hindutva that the Late Bal Thackarey stood for, ensured that Islamists couldn’t run amok, undermining and subverting the state. Instead, in Uddhav Thackarey’s tenure, Islamists went overboard in all areas. This started with Islamists violating lockdown rules and then abusing and attacking police officials responsible for enforcing strict lockdown. This was followed by Uddhav Thackarey giving permissions only to Muslims for their festivals, while Hindus were not given permissions. This was the first reason for majority of Hindu supporters of the Shiv Sena to get disenchanted by and alienated from Shiv Sena. These results make it evident that the BJP’s accusation that the Shiv Sena has become “Sonia Sena” has found acceptance in the electorate, who rejected the Uddhav Thackarey faction for allying with the Congress. The second reason is the total mismanagement and lack of governance during Covid-19 pandemic. Poor people were not given free rations sanctioned under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana. If this is not enough, then lack of healthcare facilities and ambulances became the next controversial issue that created outrage, not only among ordinary people, but also amongst Shiv Sainiks.
This election also sends a veiled message to Eknath Shinde. The Eknath Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena stood third, while the Uddhav Thackarey faction stood last in the elections. This highlights a sentiment in a section of Shiv Sena supporters that while Uddhav Thackarey could not or did not perform on both the fronts—Hindutva and governance—Eknath Shinde would perform on both the fronts. This is why the Eknath Shinde faction could get significantly more votes than the Uddhav Thackarey faction. Now it becomes imperative for Shinde to perform, else he would also perish like the Uddhav Thackarey faction.
The results are music to the BJP’s ears. The BJP individually won over 50% of the gram panchayats. This shows the increase in the BJP’s strength and groundswell support to it in the interiors. Till date, the BJP was seen largely as an urban party which had a significant support of non-Marathis in urban areas. With the BJP winning more than 50% of the gram panchayats, this myth about the BJP being a non-Marathi and an urban party is broken. The BJP couldn’t have won these many number of gram panchayats without the support of Marathi rural voters, which would predominantly include OBCs and SCs. This again debunks the other myth that the BJP is a party of upper castes.
Now Maharashtra will see next round of elections for 1,166 gram panchayats spread across 18 districts. The elections are expected to take place on 13 October. This will be the second litmus test for the BJP-Eknath Shinde’s Sena alliance and also for the MVA of the NCP, INC, and Uddhav Thackarey’s Sena. The BJP will have to work harder to ensure the momentum it has gained in previous election picks pace and delivers better results.
Gram panchayat polls are a litmus test for local legislators–MLAs and MPs, who along with the local leadership, have huge stakes in the outcome of polls. The electoral outcome offers them strength to decisively win taluka and zilla parishad elections. This in turn would determine the party’s fortunes in upcoming state assembly and general elections. These gram panchayat elections will be followed by the Municipal Corporation elections that will be held in 11 municipal corporations. In many municipal corporations, the BJP has a stronghold due to its acceptance and popularity in urban areas. However, its ability to win municipal corporations on its own might will be tested in the upcoming Municipal Corporation elections. The municipal elections will be a litmus test for the Uddhav Thackarey and the Eknath Shinde factions on who can win more seats in erstwhile combined Shiv Sena dominated areas.
Sumeet Mehta is a keen observer of Maharashtra politics and tweets from @sumeetnmehta.

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