Unlike Delhi, Maharashtra has several strong regional parties that command huge support. And Kejriwal’s old friend Anna Hazare is not a big fan of the AAP either
Since the Aam Admi Party stunned the nation with its election results in Delhi, Anjali Damania, the AAP convener in Maharashtra, has been a busy woman. Her telephone has not stopped ringing. However, Damania, who is an RTI activist, has no time to return the calls or connect with the aam admi. Appearances on television channels, phone-in TV interviews and reporter interactions with well-known Marathi newspapers and round after round of meetings are taking up all her time. An English-speaking posh coterie—clad in silks, malamal, organdis and expensive cottons—that is helping her “take the AAP agenda” to common folk responds only to well-known names.
Damania hasn’t always been this busy. Her tryst with fame started when her plot at Karjat (near Lonavala) was acquired by the state’s Irrigation Department for building a dam. Incensed, Damania filed an RTI application to find out details of the said project. The state’s reply was an eye-opener. Project costs had been inflated for the dam that was long overdue. Armed with the RTI reply, she took on one of the state’s most powerful politicians—Ajit Pawar, the nephew of NCP chief Sharad Pawar, and also Deputy Chief Minister of the state.
Ajit Pawar’s spin doctors swung into action. Pawar resigned “until the inquiry was on”. But he was soon back in office, exonerated of all charges of corruption by the Irrigation Department that he happens to head. Not one to take criticism or allegations in his stride, Ajit Pawar set about righting “Damania’s wrong”.
But the AAP’s spectacular show in Delhi may well turn out to be a no-show in Maharashtra, a state that has strong regional parties. The stage is set for a pitched battle between the Congress-NCP coalition and the Shiv Sena-BJP-RPI (Ramdas Athavale faction) alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Besides these, Maharashtra also has significant regional parties such as Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, Bharip Bahujan Party, Republican Party of India (with Prakash Ambedkar and Khobrgade factions), Peasants and Workers Party and the Swabhiman Shetkari Sanghatana. Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party are also players to contend with in the state’s political arena.
All these parties have strong leaders who have cultivated their constituencies, and command huge support. Moreover, in the six months before the 2014 polls, these parties will no doubt reorient their agendas to cater more obviously to the aam admi. Damani and her AAP team face the tough challenge of carving out a space for themselves in a crowded electoral arena. This is very different from the scenario in Delhi where voters had no regional party alternatives. Every region of the state—the western, central, Vidharba, Marathwada or the coastal belt—has strong regional alternatives.
The Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and the BJP have entered into strategic electoral alliances with regional parties at the gram panchayat, zilla parishad, municipal council and the municipal corporations levels, leaving little room for a new entrant. In Maharashtra, the mood tilts in favour of either national parties or regional parties. Where the Congress-NCP combine is not acceptable, there a strong alternative available in the form of the Shiv Sena-BJP coalition.
In the past, ex-bureaucrats like Arun Bhatia and Avinash Dharmadhikari and a bunch of other government servants have tried to enter politics with a penchant for cleaning up politics. When Bhatia and Dharmadhikari had quit government service (at separate times), they, too, generated considerable buzz but this did not translate into the required mass base or vote share. Mumbai’s much-loved ‘demolition man’ GR Khairnar, who took up the problem of illegal construction by the underworld, including the properties of Dawood Ibrahim, could not secure public support when he contested elections. All the clean men combined have been unable to notch up 1,000 votes collectively against their names whenever they have contested elections.
The AAP office has been inundated with calls from NGOs, social activists and institutions keen to join the effort. Many of them want tickets to contest elections. Identifying winnable candidates will not be an easy task for the new party. Right after the Delhi victory of AAP, Damania had told reporters that the poll results would encourage fence-sitters to step into politics. The party is keen on expanding its base in Maharashtra, but progress on the ground has been slow. The AAP may be in a resurgent mood at the moment, but its candidates may lack winnability, say senior politicians. Damania’s growing inaccessibility to the common man in this nascent stage of the party’s formation and the growing group of ‘idealists’ crowding the party are unlikely to help matters in this regard. The party’s ideology might resonate with the candlelight marchers of South Mumbai, sneers a senior BJP leader.
“If Kumar Vishwas can win a seat by reciting poetry, so can I,” says AAP ticket aspirant ‘Kavi’ Ritesh Jha. He is keen on contesting against Ajit Pawar from the Baramati constituency in Pune district. “I have tried Damania madam several times, but she has not taken my calls. I will go and meet her and tell her that I want to take on Ajit Pawar,” says the poet.
Interestingly, anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare is from Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, yet he has been unable to develop a support base in the area. In fact, when Hazare fasted at the Ramlila Grounds in Delhi, there was little support for him in Maharashtra. Though it generated mammoth support in Delhi, people from Hazare’s village had to be coerced to visit him in Delhi during the fast. After the resounding success of the fast at the Ramlila Grounds in Delhi, the Hazare-Kejriwal rally at the BKC Ground in Mumbai attracted 2,000 people at best. “People in Maharashtra are used to Hazare’s flip-flops with politicians. They know that he fasts only to inconvenience certain politicians, and works to secure gains for others,” said a senior Congress leader who has been the target of Hazare’s anti-corruption stir.
The AAP is unlikely to get the support of Anna Hazare and his Bhrastachar Virodhi Samiti; Hazare has not seemed very comfortable with Kejriwal since the Ramlila fast. He has, in fact, issued periodic warnings against Kejriwal and the AAP for using his name or image to lure voters. There seems little likelihood of a change of heart on Hazare’s part.
Hazare has now begun yet another round of indefinite fasting from 10 December at Ralegan Siddhi for the Jan Lokpal Bill, warning the Congress of grave consequences in the 2014 elections if it fails to pass the Bill. So far, Hazare has found no support from the AAP for his latest fast.
Clearly, the political scene in Maharashtra is quite different from that in Delhi. Regional issues such as procurement prices for cotton, sugarcane, irrigation issues, electricity supply to farmers, etcetera, are of considerable importance. The state has a strong cooperative base across sectors such as banking, agriculture and dairy farming, and the state’s leaders have sizeable holdings which help them connect with their vote banks. The majority of leaders in Maharashtra (except the Shiv Sena) own sugar mills. These farmers are usually aligned with leaders who own these mills.
Unlike the AAP, these regional parties are flush with funds; big corporates have been ‘donating’ generously to their coffers. In the tight nexus between career politicians and these generous companies, the AAP will find it difficult to get donors in the state since few are willing to support candidates with uncertain chances of winning.
Though Damania’s caller-tune belts out: “Aam aadmi ke saath, aam aadmi ke baat, aam aadmi ke haq mein hain, her team needs to be more in tune with the aam aadmi’s needs. Otherwise, it might turn out that South Bombay’s candlelight marchers take over this party.