Maharashtra by-election result: ruling MVA learns from its past mistakes

An energetic campaign by Congressman and former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, lack of a strong candidate proved to be BJP’s undoing

The defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate at the hands of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition of the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to retain the Deglur-Biloli Assembly seat in Nanded district is indicative of a well-coordinated strategy on the MVA’s part in its struggle with the BJP in Maharashtra.

The bypoll, that had been necessitated following the death of sitting Congress MLA Raosaheb Antapurkar due to COVID-19-related complications in April this year, had witnessed an unusually high voter turnout of 63% — more than the voter turnout in Deglur-Biloli during the 2019 State Assembly election itself.

The BJP’s high-decibel campaign came a cropper as Congress’ Jitesh Antapurkar (the deceased MLA’s son) effortlessly trounced his BJP rival Subhash Sabne by a huge margin of more than 41,000 votes, turning a potential close contest into a one-sided win for the MVA, and a prestige win for his party, the Congress.

However, analysts say that despite Nanded being Congressman and former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s stronghold, victory for the MVA was far from certain and required careful strategising to match the BJP’s relentless campaign.

Less than six months ago, the ruling MVA, and the NCP in particular, were dealt a rude shock when the BJP scored a major upset win in the Pandharpur by-election in May this year.

The bypoll was held after the death of sitting NCP MLA Bharat Bhalke who had passed away due to post-COVID-19 related complications.

The Pandharpur by-election had been a particularly humiliating setback for the NCP (and the MVA) as it was considered a ‘safe seat’ for the ruling parties given that even the local bodies were fully in the NCP’s kitty.

“Even considering the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the campaigning for Pandharpur was marked by lethargy and overconfidence. Coordination between the three parties was poor and the Sena and the Congress did not campaign wholeheartedly. In stark contrast, campaigning for the Delgur by-poll was done on a war footing by the three parties, particularly by senior Congressman Ashok Chavan, who supervised virtually everything from the booth-level onwards,” says senior political analyst Vivek Bhavsar.

Another factor that proved to be the BJP’s undoing in Deglur was lack of a strong, indigenous candidate. Instead, the party was compelled to ‘import’ Subhash Sabne, a former Shiv Sainik whose defection to the BJP alienated his followers.

“In contrast with Mr. Sabne, Raosaheb Antapurkar was a local leader of immense stature in Deglur. The deceased MLA had retained the ‘common touch’ till his last breath, and was known to lead a simple life, shunning ostentation. Besides the sympathy ‘factor’, Jitesh Antapurkar is a highly-qualified candidate, someone on whom the youth in the region can pin their hopes on,” says Mr. Bhavsar.

According to him, the BJP’s overly ‘aggressive campaigning’ may have actually worked against the party. The run-up to the bypoll saw Leader of Opposition and former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis campaigning frenetically along with State BJP chief Chandrakant Patil.

“However, the BJP took on Ashok Chavan by hinting raids by Central agencies against businesses linked to him…such overtly strongarm tactics, at a time when the perception is that of the Centre’s blatant misuse of agencies against non-BJP parties, may have put off voters and worked against the BJP,” said a local election watcher.

The contest certainly was a prestige fight for Mr. Chavan, who left no stone unturned to retain his party’s supremacy over the Deglur and can take credit for being the ‘architect’ of the MVA win.

“In contrast, no leader from the NCP — not even Ajit Pawar — had paid much attention to Pandharpur, which had led to the MVA losing a seat which ideally should have been won by them. This mistake was corrected in the Deglur contested by making Mr. Chavan responsible for engineering the MVA’s win,” observes Mr. Bhavsar.

Major setback for BJP

The BJP had also suffered a major setback on the eve of the bypoll itself, with former Nanded MP Bhaskar Patil Khatgaonkar — Mr. Chavan’s brother-in-law — quitting the BJP and re-joining the Congress fold.

Mr. Khatgaonkar, a former three-time MP, returned back to the Congress which he had exited seven years ago along with former MLA Omprakash Pokarna. His defection seriously undercut the BJP’s chances as the former is considered to be an influential leader in the constituency.

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