The October 15 assembly election in Maharashtra has set the stage for political re-alignment in the state for the first time in 25 years after both the ruling and the opposition alliances announced parting of ways.
The polls would also be a test of sorts for the new leadership emerging in the key political parties in the state.
The Hindutva votes, brought under a common umbrella by Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray and BJP leader Pramod Mahajan in the 1980s, would be split leading to interesting contests among the Bhartiya Janata Party, Shiv Sena, Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
That the Sena-BJP alliance lasted over two decades and the Congress-NCP combine survived for 15 years itself was a miracle. The parting of ways for the competing alliances was inevitable as the Sena had made significant inroads in the BJP dominated areas and vice versa. Similar was the case with the Congress and the NCP. None of the national parties – Congress and the BJP – wanted to play second fiddle to the regional allies who were flexing their muscles.
After pulling off a spectacular victory in the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is also keen to shed the baggage of its allies. The BJP has been assiduously following the ‘go it alone’ line which has been visible in states like Karnataka, Kerala and West Bengal.
The decision to dump ‘ideological’ ally Sena is also a reflection of the ‘go it alone’ approach of the BJP. Last month, the BJP snapped ties with the Haryana Janhit Congress with which it contested the Lok Sabha elections in Haryana.
After wresting power in Delhi, the desire to control Mumbai, the financial capital of the country and Maharashtra, an important developed state that ranks ahead in business, was one of the key reasons for snapping the ties with the Sena. The BJP is solely banking on the ‘Modi wave’ witnessed during the Lok Sabha elections. Its central leadership hopes his charisma would help the party reap a rich harvest in the assembly polls.
Lack of leaders in BJP
After the death of its senior leader Gopinath Munde, the BJP lacks a pan-Maharashtra face and the current crop of leaders – Devendra Fadanvis, Vinod Tawde, Eknath Khadse - do not enjoy the clout beyond their respective regions. The BJP is limited to urban centres in Maharashtra but is a force to reckon with in the Vidarbha region. A BJP win in Maharashtra would also boost the campaign for a separate Vidarbha state, an idea strongly opposed by the Sena.
Post-split, the Sena has announced a return to the pro-Marathi agenda and is expected to paint the BJP as an “enemy of Maharashtra”. The regional outfit is a dominant force in Mumbai, Thane and Konkan regions. It also has considerable hold over north Maharashtra, Marathwada and pockets of Vidarbha. Its activists displayed their anger against the BJP for ending their alliance as they raised slogans against BJP president Amit Shah. Several posters ridiculing Shah were also seen in Mumbai as Sena and BJP played hardball over seat sharing arrangements.
The standoff with the BJP has also charged up Sena workers who are keen to bring the party to power in the state and realise the dream of Bal Thackeray who died in November 2012.
The elections are also a test for the leadership of Uddhav Thackeray, who became Sena supremo after the death of his father, a colossus in Maharashtra politics. A better outcome for the BJP would diminish Uddhav’s relevance in state politics and end Sena’s dominance in the saffron fold.
As for the NCP, the odds are stacked against it. The NCP leaders are battling charges of corruption allegedly perpetuated during their 15-year tenure in the government in alliance with the Congress. Sharad Pawar, who formed the NCP after parting ways with the Congress on Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin issue, remains a towering figure in state politics. However, it is his ambitious nephew Ajit Pawar who calls the shots in the state affairs of the party. Pawar’s desire to occupy the CM’s chair was one of the reasons for the NCP to break ties with the Congress.
The junior Pawar strikes a chord with the party workers but also carries the tag of being arrogant as well as the baggage of alleged scams during his tenure in the government. The Anti Corruption Bureau is probing the role of Ajit Pawar and Maharashtra NCP chief Sunil Tatkare in an irrigation scam. The alleged scam is expected to haunt the NCP during the election campaign. On the positive side, the NCP enjoys strong organisational support through a network of co-operative societies and educational institutions controlled by its leaders. This gives NCP leaders the confidence of winning their own assembly seats and influencing the outcome in neighbouring regions.
Being the oldest party, the Congress enjoys strong organisational presence across the state and has a committed voter base despite the mood against the government headed by Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. Though Chavan’s clean image could be a unique selling proposition for the Congress, the perception of his being indecisive will be a drawback.
A key irritant for the Congress has been its internal squabbles. Former CMs Ashok Chavan and Narayan Rane, who lead factions within the state unit, have little love lost for Chavan. The party’s central leadership faced a tough time a few months back to quell a virtual rebellion in the party ranks in the state.
The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, led by Shiv Sena renegade Raj Thackeray, had helped Congress-NCP retain power in 2009. But today, the MNS itself is pushed to the margins and is battling for survival.
A multi-cornered election against this backdrop seems to be an ideal recipe for a hung assembly.