Maharashtra Elections: A Strong, Secular Message

How should one view the victory of Congress in recent assembly polls, particularly that in Maharashtra? Muslims and all non-Marathi voters in Maharashtra should welcome the electoral verdict as it is indeed a blow against the attempt made by saffron brigade and their associates to return to power. Though the breakaway faction of Shiv Sena, Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) managed to make a debut in the assembly, there is little doubt that ethnic bias entertained by this group made a major role in turning the voters against this group, the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Maharashtra assembly results should be viewed as not a simply another win for the Congress-led combine but as a major defeat for extremist elements entertaining bias against non-Marathis and also Muslims. Besides, it was politically sensible of the Congress of not trying to fight the elections only on its own strength. Had the party not reached a political understanding with its key ally - the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), it may not have been an easy task for it to return to power again in the state. This also indicates that the Congress is still a long way off from its desire to form a single party government in key states like Maharashtra and of course at the Center.

The Maharashtra results thus send several strong messages. The voters are in no mood to be taken for a ride by attempts made by Thackeray-brand leaders, including MNS, to excite communal frenzy in the state on ethnic issues, regional and religious. This, however, does not suggest that the time is now politically perfect for national parties like Congress to push out regional parties out and dominate the show. It is as yet too early to minimize the importance held by regional parties, like NCP in Maharashtra. It is not a victory of Congress but of the Congress-NCP alliance that has helped keep BJP-Shiv Sena out of power.

Should BJP-Shiv Sena's defeat also be linked with gradual fading away of Bal Thackeray from the political limelight? To a degree, yes, but even if he still had the power to address large crowds, there is the other angle, which cannot be sidelined. The voters have no inclination to be instantly excited, along communal lines, by highly frenzied and passionate speeches delivered by such leaders. It must not be ignored that though last year, terror-strikes in Mumbai held life in financial capital at stake for a few days leading the then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to resign, making way for Ashok Chavan, the issue did not divide the electorate on communal lines. Rather the assembly election results suggest, that despite facing problems like inflation, etc, common sense prompted voters to deliberately turn towards the Congress-NCP combine.

It cannot be missed that Mumbai-terror strikes have made the Marathi voter more conscientious of keeping communal and extremist elements out of power. The BJP apparently expected a clean win in Maharashtra by playing on the Mumbai-strikes. It was expected that issues such as Mumbai-strikes, inflation etc would make it more difficult for the Congress-NCP combine to return to power than before. The latter point suggests, that an easy victory for Congress-NCP was not expected.  It was viewed as a hard race more so because two terms of the alliance in power had not eased problems faced by voters. In addition to recession having compounded their economic woes, they also have complaints against poor governance, which apparently has not paid much attention to problems such as farmers' suicide, poor transportation, congested roads, etc.  

Against this backdrop, Maharashtra assembly results demand a strong reflection by both winners and losers on what led the voters' take this decision. It is time that BJP and Shiv Sena accepted that till these two parties keep harping on their communal, anti-Muslim card, the secular Indian voters - including Muslims and non-Muslims- are likely to ensure that saffron brigade and their associates remain out of power. With the average Indian voter far more politically shrewd than perhaps most critics assume him/her to be, the Congress and its allies need to become more pragmatic. They have been given a chance the third time, despite the voters being dissatisfied with their performance. By the next elections, the communal issues are likely to be erased even more strongly in the priorities entertained by average voters. They may not even figure in the issues considered by the new generation of voters. They would want a result-oriented, constructive state government and not one, which only lives by the promises confined to rhetoric and paper. The Maharashtra assembly results have reaffirmed the voters' message delivered by 2009 parliamentary results- that they are against communal agenda exercised by extremist parties. Now, having conveyed their stand, voters are going to be strongly watchful on the performance of Congress-led alliance at the center as well as at state levels. It is time politicians understood the mindset of secular Indian voters.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 November 2009 on page no. 18

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