Thirty-four years later, Mr Pawar took on the combined might of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
The counting of votes on October 24 resulted in a comfortable majority for the pre-poll alliance between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena. Yet, a pall of gloom enveloped the saffron camp – and for good reason.
Having failed to achieve the target of winning over 220 seats in the Assembly, the saffron alliance also ended up losing ground to a resurgent Opposition led by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar.
The below-par performance of the saffron alliance and the remarkable resilience shown by the Pawar-led Opposition were the two main takeaways from the 2019 Assembly election results. Nevertheless, these two takeaways resemble closely the ones observed after the 1985 Assembly election results were announced.
Dip after splendid LS performance
In what can only be termed as an eerie numerical co-incidence, the pre-poll saffron alliance in 2019 as well as the Congress (I) in 1985 won 161 seats. The backstory of both electoral performances also had several parallels.
In the December 1984 Lok Sabha polls, held in the aftermath of former PM Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Congress (I) won 42 Lok Sabha seats and over 50 per cent of the vote share in the state. Buoyed by newly sworn-in Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s charisma, the Congress (I) was expecting a massive victory in the Assembly polls. In fact, the then chief minister Vasantdada Patil, too, was confident of his party winning 230-odd Assembly seats.
The 2019 Assembly polls, too, played out in a similar manner. After winning 41 out of the 48 seats and nearly 50 per cent of the vote share in the Lok Sabha election, political pundits dubbed the BJP-Sena alliance as unstoppable. So confident were the BJP and Sena of a massive victory in the Assembly polls that the former also came up with the slogan of “Abki baar 220 paar”.
In both instances, however, national factors failed to enthuse the electorate during Assembly polls. In March 1985, the Congress (I) failed to galvanise voters by pitching Mr Gandhi as ‘TINA’ (There Is No other Alternative). Three decades later, the BJP’s attempt to make the state election into a referendum on the Centre’s Kashmir policy (Read abrogation of Article 370) came to a cropper.
Ahead of the Assembly polls in 1985, the Congress (I) replaced several sitting MLAs, sparking a rebellion within the party ranks. At least 22 Congressmen fought the polls as Independents, with seven of them winning. Most notably, former CM A.R. Antulay won as an Independent from Shrivardhan. Moreover, the 1985 election saw Independents garnering over 17 per cent of the votes – the highest till date.
With several local leaders missing out on a ticket this time, in order to accommodate turncoat leaders, the saffron allies, too, faced rebellion in several constituencies. While 40-odd Sena-BJP leaders turned rebel, not all could win as Independents. Nevertheless, many were able to play spoilsport in several constituencies. In some cases, rebels were also able to defeat high-profile candidates like Narendra Mehta.
One man was a common link between the two elections – Mr Pawar. Despite his advancing age and the existential threat to his party, the Maratha strongman proved to be a solid opponent, helping his party win 54 seats. In yet another numerical co-incidence, the Pawar-led Congress (Socialist), too, had won 54 seats in 1985.
The whole Opposition, more or less, rallied behind Mr Pawar ahead of the 1985 polls, with ideologically disparate parties like the BJP and the Peasants and Workers Party coming under the umbrella of the Progressive Democratic Front. Though Mr Pawar failed to dislodge the Congress (I), he cemented his position as one of the biggest Maratha leaders.
Thirty-four years later, Mr Pawar took on the combined might of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. While the top BJP leadership continued to attack him in their rallies, the former Union minister chose to keep the focus on farmer crisis and rising unemployment.
With the BJP-Sena underperforming in the recent polls, Mr Pawar had the last laugh. In the process, Mr Pawar reiterated a point he made to a prominent news magazine ahead of the 1985 polls: “In an Assembly election, local issues come to the fore.”