Pragmatism wins

The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party have finalised their seat-sharing arrangement in Maharashtra after hard bargaining, with hardly three weeks remaining for the elections. Both parties had ‘in principle’ agreed long ago to continue their old alliance, the Democratic Front, but the nitty-gritty of seat-sharing did not yield an easy agreement. The Congress is more dominant in the state than it was in 2004 when it contested 164 seats in the 278-member Assembly and left 124 for the NCP.

The party is stronger at the Centre after the last Lok Sabha elections. It did much better than the NCP in Maharashtra in the parliamentary elections, winning 17 seats against the NCP’s eight. The Congress state leadership at one stage wanted to go it alone, and even last week needled the NCP with a public statement  that it should merge with the Congress after the elections.

But the parties have similar and overlapping mass bases and have to stick together, in view of the strength of the rival Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. A split would hurt both and clear the way for the Sena-led alliance to come back to power. The Congress does not have a leader in the state who can match NCP supremo Sharad Pawar’s stature. But both the parties seem to have realised that by combining their strengths they can overcome their limitations. Both have compromised on their initial demands, with the NCP giving away more than the Congress. It is contesting 114 seats this time while the Congress will contest 174 seats. Sharad Pawar is nothing if not a realist, and his decision to go more than halfway to accommodate the Congress’ demands is a sign of political wisdom.

With the agreement on seats sewn up, the Democratic Front will hope to have an upper hand in the elections. But the Sena-BJP alliance is a strong contender and the Front cannot expect an easy victory. Even if Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) takes away a chunk of Sena votes, the alliance is strong enough to make a credible run for power. The DF will have to contend with the anti-incumbency sentiment and the Third Front and the BSP can hurt it in many seats. The recent by-election results in many states also show that the voters can easily shift their preferences in a span of a few weeks. So the contest is very much open.

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