The shift of the OBC Kunabis to the Congress, alongside tribal, Dalit and Muslim support, makes Vidarbha a tough battle for the BJP
Powerful Union Minister and former President of BJP Nitin Gadkari may just scrape through on his Nagpur Lok Sabha seat. However, the last minute buildup against him indicates the waning of the Modi wave in Vidarbha. Seven Lok Sabha constituencies, including Nagpur, underwent polling in the first phase of the 2019 election. All of these were won by the BJP-Shiv Sena in 2014, followed by a landslide in the assembly elections in the same year.
In the last five years, the Modi government at the Centre and Fadnavis government in the state have been hailed as ‘developmental’ in their approach and actions. The BJP weakened the demand of statehood for Vidarbha with the promise that it would bring in development in the region with leverages of power at all levels. This momentum seemed to dominate the region even after the assembly election results in neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Pre-Pulawama and Post-Pulawama, the narrative in Vidarbha was that of a rout of the Congress-NCP and emphatic victory for Modi-Gadkari-Fadanvis.
Congress remained in low spirits and its state organisation was in disarray even after the announcement of elections for the 17th Lok Sabha. All of this, however, changed dramatically in the last fortnight.
The first sign of discontent against incumbents emerged when Narendra Modi’s rally in Wardha turned out to be a flop show. Even the BJP did not counter the talk that there was poor turnout at the rally. Rather, it provided an excuse that the heat wave made people stay inside their homes/workplaces.
Just a few days later, there was an overwhelming response to Rahul Gandhi’s meeting at the same venue. What was behind this shift in people’s mood? Agrarian distress seems to be at the centre of political discourse in Vidarbha rather than the development claims of the BJP.
Of course, pro-Modi sentiments and the BJP’s organization remained as strong as ever, yet the silent dissenters began to express themselves through different means. Vidarbha is a pre-dominantly agrarian belt with Nagpur as a political centre. Successive governments in Maharashtra have tried to develop an industrial hub in and around Nagpur with limited success. The BJP-led government emphasised the development of world-class infrastructure such as Metro, six-lane highways, flyovers and beautification of urban centres. These developmental activities created an impression that the BJP has been bringing in unprecedented development.
These sentiments still persist, but questions are also being asked now on the vitality of this development model. From imposition of up to three per cent additional taxes on Nagpur’s citizens for Metro to construction of cement roads replacing roads in good conditions to viability of Metro project — all these are being questioned openly by the voters. Many linked it to ruling leaders’ shares in cement industry and alleged that only contractors have been benefitted by the present regime.
More than any perceived electoral gains by the opposition in this election, it is the emergence of this debate on development that serves as a mark of the impending defeat of the BJP and its leaders in the region.
Importantly, Gadkari is no more recognized as a ‘fat man on a scooter,’ which symbolized his character during the last election. Now, for a section of population, Gadkari is a man of flats and flights.
Vidarbha has witnessed two types of polarisation in the first phase of polls in seven constituencies. The first polarisation was between the farming and non-farming communities. The salaried class, a significant section of well-to-do traders, urbanised youth and shopkeepers enthusiastically support Modi’s BJP. However, the farming community along with agricultural workers and a major section of unemployed youth are standing up to the Modi juggernaut. Tribes have slightly shifted towards the Congress in this election, but there is no consolidation of tribal votes in anyone’s favour.
The other polarisation was on community lines. The Dalits, Muslims and a big chunk of Kunabi community in the region are said to be against the BJP in this election. In the last Lok Sabha elections, most of the Kunabis, many Dalit Christians and a few Muslims voted for the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance. But this time, most of the voters from these communities appeared firm in their opposition to the BJP. The Kunabis are mostly farmers, while Dalits form a chunk of agricultural labourers.
The unemployed, as well as self-employed youth, are divided politically on community lines. The non-Dalit, non-Muslim and non-Kunabi unemployed and self-employed youth are still with the BJP, while Dalit, Muslim and Kunabi youth are disenchanted with the Modi government.
Dalits in Vidarbha, even though divided into several groups and factions, are politically highly conscious voters. Most of them shoulder the burden of fulfilling Dr Ambedkar’s vision for the community and the country. Incidents like Rohith Vemula’s suicide, mob-lynching, violence at Bhima-Koregaon and burning of a copy of the constitution at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi have not gone down well with the community. Many Dalit groups are disappointed with the way a constitutional amendment to ensure 10 per cent reservation to non-Dalit and non-OBC economically poor sections of people has been passed. According to them, the Modi government has not only tempered with the concept of reservation but has also made a mockery of constitutional procedure.
Even though most of the Dalit groups have upped the ante against the BJP in Vidarbha, there are multiple players seeking their votes, in particular the UPA, the BSP and the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA). Many Dalit intellectuals and Dalit groups, indeed, have firmed up their support to UPA. Yet, the BJP’s net loss might not result in a net gain for the Congress-NCP. Even though Prakash Ambedkar’s VBA could not pick up its appeal when the actual campaign started, the BSP has always been a silent player in the region. In the last Lok Sabha and assembly elections, the BSP emerged as a force to dent Congress prospects. It remains difficult to fathom the extent of support to the BSP and how much of it would convert into votes for it.
Dalits constitute 20 to 22 per cent of the voters in the region. In Nagpur Lok Sabha constituency, Dalit voters are 15 per cent of all voters. Most of them have been converted to Buddhism and are wary of the Hindutva agenda. The non-Buddhist Dalits, however, have been brought under the umbrella of Hindutva by the RSS and, till recently, remained committed to the BJP. There are no overt signs of them shifting their loyalty from BJP to others.
The Muslims constitute a maximum of 10 per cent of total voters in Vidarbha with a sizeable presence in Nagpur city and Yavatmal-Washim Lok Sabha constituency. The AIMIM influence is minimal amongst Vidarbha’s Muslims, who have been traditional voters of the Congress since independence. In this election, Muslims are believed to have voted for the Congress-NCP even though a section of Muslims in Nagpur have been co-opted by Nitin Gadkari in his vote bank in the last election.
The Other Backward Classes (OBCs) are believed to constitute as much as 50 per cent of the voters in the region. Amongst the OBCs, Kunabis form the largest block and are an agrarian community. Kunabis culturally consider themselves as Marathas but most of them have been included in the OBC category since the implementation of reservation as per the Mandal Commission.
Kunabis are believed to be 25 to 30 per cent of Vidarbha’s population, although there is no exact numerical count that is available. Once strong supporters of the Congress, a section of Kunabis drifted towards the BJP. In the last election, a large majority of Kunabis were believed to have voted for Nitin Gadkari in Nagpur. In this election, by all indications, most of the rural Kunabi voters have returned to the Congress. Being an agricultural community, the Kunabis have developed a notion of being ditched by the BJP government. Its impact on urban and urbanized Kunabi voters is not clear yet. The intensity of the impact will determine Gadkari’s fate in Nagpur. His rival, Nana Patole, has an excellent network amongst Kunabis.
Apart from him, the Congress-NCP combine has put up Kunabi candidates in Bhandara-Gondia, Wardha, Chandrapur and Yavatmal-Washim constituencies. The remaining two constituencies are reserved for SC and ST communities, respectively. These candidatures have proved helpful in galvanizing Kunabi support for the Congress throughout Vidarbha. Nana Patole has come up with an attempted DMK social coalition in Nagpur and across Vidarbha. DMK stands for Dalit-Muslim-Kunabi communities!
BJP’s Support Base
Amongst OBCs, Teli is the second strongest community in Vidarbha, numerically speaking. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to be from Teli community amongst the OBCs. The Telis are more loyal to the BJP than Kunabis are to Congress.
In this election as well, the Teli voters have mostly taken the side of the BJP-Shiv Sena. The Teli community could be 15 to 20 per cent of Vidarbha’s population. Like Kunabis, the Teli too is an agrarian community. But there is no bonhomie between Kunabis and Telis in Vidarbha.
The other communities amongst OBCs are scattered across Vidarbha. They are not only numerically small but are divided on their support to any one political formation.
Along with Telis, several other non-OBC, non-Dalit communities form a rock solid base for the BJP in the region. These are mostly Brahmins, Gujaratis, Jains and Vaishya (Komati) communities. These communities’ vote share is not large, but these are resourceful people. They are opinion makers in public spaces, which has helped the BJP in leading the political discourse.
The tribals are an important constituent in three Lok Sabha constituencies that went to polls on 11th April.
In Gadchiroli, tribal proportion is the highest, up to 38 per cent. In Chandrapur and Yavatmal constituencies, it is about 20 per cent each. Reports suggest that tribals voted for Congress more than they did for the BJP in these constituencies. If these reports are substantive, the Congress would be winning these seats with ADMK consolidation, i.e. Adivasi-Dalit-Muslim-Kunabi communities.
Post-polls, Congress leaders are talking about winning four to five seats out of the seven in the first phase. BJP leaders are confident of winning Gadkari’s seat but are unwilling to provide their assessment on the rest of the constituencies.
The first phase of polls here was certainly to the advantage of the Congress-led alliance. The combine that began with a ‘nothing to lose’ premise and has come close to knocking down the ruling party nominees in a majority of the seven seats. This isn’t a small achievement for a party that was in hibernation till recently. It will certainly have an impact on the forthcoming assembly elections in the state.
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
15 Apr 2019