Why Gopinath Munde's death spells gloom for BJP in Maharashtra

Munde was the only BJP leader in Maharashtra with a skill for building coalitions, drawing out consensus from conflict and placating angry Shiv Sena leaders. The ramifications of his demise will last longer than the coming Assembly elections.

Kavitha Iyer June 05, 2014 07:50:53 IST
Why Gopinath Munde's death spells gloom for BJP in Maharashtra

The extent of the loss the Bharatiya janata Party has suffered on account of the sudden death of Gopinath Munde was captured by Nitin Gadkari.

Speaking to Mumbai Mirror, the former party president said candidly that Munde was always set to return to Maharashtra as chief minister after the Assembly elections. A win for the BJP-Sena was almost a given after the resounding mandate of the Lok Sabha elections for the BJP. Munde's inclusion in the Union Cabinet was temporary, Gadkari claims, adding that the move was aimed more at silencing possible speculation of a widening rift between himself and Munde, the two most prominent Maharashtra BJP leaders.

Why Gopinath Mundes death spells gloom for BJP in Maharashtra

Gopinath Munde. PTI

On the face of it, the BJP appears to have lost a chief ministerial candidate ahead of their best shot in a long time at seizing control of the large and prosperous state of Maharashtra. Or to put it more precisely, they have lost their only chief ministerial candidate.

Gadkari will, in all likelihood, now play a lead role in planning and strategising for the Assembly elections coming up in October. But he is no CM candidate, and for a number of key reasons: he is the wrong caste (Brahmin); has no mass base of his own; won his very first election only last month after decades as an upper house member in the state legislature and then in the Rajya Sabha; and is still to establish a track record as an orator who can draw a large crowd to a political rally.

The other option is Devendra Phadnavis, the state BJP president. He's among the most well-spoken and aggressive BJP leaders in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, but he's Brahmin, as well, and wholly lacks a pan-Maharashtra presence.

The other two leaders of note are Mumbai-based: one is the leader of Opposition in the Vidhan Parishad Vinod Tawde; the other is Mumbai BJP president Ashish Shelar, also an upper house member. Both are very promising leaders, among the next generation of BJP leaders to watch out for, but again, lack a pan Maharashtra presence, and are still to earn their political spurs as mass leaders.

Naturally, the immediate impact of the loss of Munde is that the BJP is now more than likely to re-assess its opposition to alliance partner Shiv Sena's decision to unilaterally project Uddhav Thackeray as CM candidate. What was threatening to turn into a major political thorn too close to the election could now be the only workable solution. The BJP having won more Lok Sabha seats in the LS election and the fact that several lightweight Sena candidates won riding the Modi wave could lend some weight to the BJP's demand for more seats. The 117-171 seat-share agreement between the BJP and Sena respectively could be restructured, but it definitely appears that the Sena will unexpectedly get its way on the CM candidate without a contest.

But the political ramifications of Munde's demisae go well beyond the loss of a CM candidate.

As a counter to the NCP's deep presence in the rich western Maharashtra belt, Munde was the only voice with a credible track record, having opposed Sharad Pawar stiffly even in the last election. Munde ran a two-month campaign against Pawar alleging criminalisation of politics back  in the early 1990s, a movement that would eventually contribute to the establishment of the Sena-BJP government in 1995. The NCP has been making deep inroads in Marathwada, the region Munde lorded over. In coming years, as the NCP attempts to drive in roots in more constituencies in Marathwada, the BJP will sorely miss Munde's experience and maturity.

It was also to Munde's credit that the saffron alliance in Maharashtra is now an impressive six-party force -- with the Ramdas Athavale-led RPI  joining the alliance ahead of the municipal elections two years ago, and Raju Shetty's Swabhimaani Paksha and the Shiv Sangraam roped in just before the Lok Sabha elections. The Swabhimaani Paksha led by Raju Shetty has a strong presence among sugarcane farmers and milk producers in Western Maharashtra, a potent force against the NCP.

The Shiv Sangram is led by Vinayak Mete, who has championed the cause of reservation for Marathas, which is widely considered to be the most politically powerful community in the state. Mete, a former NCP MLC, switched sides to the BJP following Munde's overtures and campiagned for Munde in several parts of Beed before the Lok Sabha election. Known to have been very close to deputy chief minister and senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar in his former role, Mete is scheduled to play a key role for the BJP in the Assembly election, striking at the heart of the NCP's Maratha-dominated constituencies.

There is also the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha (RSP) led by farmers' leader Mahadev Jankar, whose political clout was established this general election when he gave a scare to Supriya Sule in Sharad Pawar's pocket borough of Baramati and in 2009 when he polled a surprising 90,000-odd votes against the senior Pawar himself.

It's a rainbow alliance of sorts, stitched up almost single-handedly by Munde with the objective of exponentially expanding BJP's influence in Maharashtra. That sort of political strategising requires maturity and sufficient personal stature across political party lines, something that the BJP will not only miss at election time but, if they win in Maharashtra as expected, through five years of running a state government with the Sena as a partner.

It was Munde's brother-in-law Pramod Mahajan who played the BJP's placator-in-chief in the early years of the Sena-BJP alliance when BJP leaders had to scurry to Matoshree to convince, cajole and plead with Balasaheb. After Mahajan, that mantle fell on Munde who established a good rapport with Uddhav Thackeray.

Gadkari, on the contrary, has earned the mistrust of the Shiv Sena by plotting to rope in Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena into the NDA -- without so much as consulting or intimating Uddhav. The MNS ended up fielding candidates against only Sena candidates, not BJP candidates, and each of these MNS candidates lost their security deposit.

The Shiv Sena has reason to wear its fiercest colours right now. It has chalked up its best ever performance in a Lok Sabha election, fielding 20 candidates and seeing 18 of them win. Uddhav Thackeray appears to have finally developed an appetite for politics and for power. The Sena has consolidated its position in its original stronghold Mumbai with three MPs. It has managed to dislodge Konkan strongman Narayan Rane's son from a LS seat in the Konkan, another region where it commands wide support. Finally, the MNS looks diminished even if everyone acknowledges that the Assembly election is a different ballgame and Raj Thackeray's decision to field himself could cause a spike in support for the party.

An aggressive Shiv Sena will not be a submissive and always cooperative coalition partner in government. :iaising with the Sena has always posed a complex task and the younger lot of BJP leaders who cheered along Gadkari's moves towards the MNS can hardly expect to excel in that initiative.

Until the younger batch of BJP leaders in Maharashtra emerge as political forces to reckon with and build constituencies and committed constituents, the Shiv Sena is certain to be the more assertive partner in Maharashtra. And if coalition politics is as much about consensus building as it is about compromise, the BJP can prepare to deal with complex days ahead. And they will have do it without the reassuring presence of a Gopinath Munde.

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