Maharashtra: a tale of two mega alliances

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In the run up to the Lok Sabha polls, there are more questions than answers in Maharashtra. Will the ruling BJP and Shiv Sena fight LS polls as allies? Can Congress and NCP bury all their differences and internal party issues and form a formidable alliance, perhaps with smaller parties in a ‘Mahagatbandhan’? Importantly, will we have assembly polls, too, along with LS polls?

Maharashtra has 48 LS seats, second only to Uttar Pradesh’s 80. Its politics, both at the state level and at central level, has been dominated in the last two decades by four parties in two alliances – Congress-NCP and Shiv Sena-BJP. The saffron alliance won 40 of the 48 seats in 2014. In the Narendra Modi-led NDA government, the Sena is a partner and has one minister, while in Maharashtra, the two parties run the government together, with BJP dominating the alliance even in the state for the first time.

The 2014 polls had thrown open an interesting scenario. During Lok Sabha polls, the BJP-Shiv Sena had a seat-sharing arrangement and contested the polls together, and so did the Congress and NCP, whose Democratic Front alliance had ruled the state for 15 years. Riding on the Modi wave, the saffron alliance swept the polls. 

However, in the 2014 Maharashtra assembly polls, the two alliances broke and the four parties fought the elections separately. A hung assembly forced the Sena and BJP together, despite their differences; Congress and NCP, too, realised later that they had to stay together.

Now again in 2019, Congress and Sharad Pawar’s NCP, though they have decided to ally, are facing hitches over seat-sharing. On the other hand, Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray has kept BJP leaders guessing even as he continues to bitterly target Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP president Amit Shah and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.

Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut had been maintaining that the party had decided at its national convention in January 2018 that it would contest all future polls alone and would field candidates in other states as well. Notwithstanding that, there have been one-on-one meetings between Shah and Thackeray, besides phone calls and even back-channel talks to keep the allies together. Maharashtra BJP chief Raosaheb Patil-Danve had asked his party men to be prepared to fight for all seats. A clearer situation will emerge in the next few weeks. The faction of the Republican Party of India led by Ramdas Athawale, a union minister, has decided to stick with the BJP, and wants the Sena, too, to stay in the NDA.

Meanwhile, state Congress chief Ashok Chavan and leader of the opposition in the assembly Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil  and state NCP chief Jayant Patil and leader of the opposition in the Council Dhananjay Munde and others have met several times over seat-sharing arrangements. The NCP was keen to include Raj Thackeray’s MNS in the alliance, but Congress is not keen. Having Raj Thackeray, who has in the past raged against migrants from North India, in its Maharashtra camp could hurt its prospects in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. 

Both Congress and NCP want Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh to be part of their grand alliance, but Ambedkar’s alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM is the fly in the ointment. Considering past experience, the Congress-NCP front is trying to bring parties such as SP, JD(S), PWP, farmers’ leader and Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana founder-president Raju Shetty and some RPI factions, like Jogendra Kawade’s group, into a grand alliance. 

But Congress has a problem: a rift in its unit in Mumbai, which accounts for six Lok Sabha seats, has come to the fore, with Milind Deora, a former union minister in the Manmohan Singh government, targeting Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam.

Not a smooth sailing

The last four-and-a-half years has not been smooth sailing for BJP-Shiv Sena because of the war of words and public bickering the partners have indulged in. But one major issue on which they agreed and succeeded in was in giving 16% reservation to Marathas in jobs and education. The Marathas account for nearly 33% of the state’s 11.25-crore population. Thus, Maharashtra now has a 68% total quota -- next only to Tamil Nadu’s 69% -- in violation of the 50% limit mandated by the Supreme Court. Moreover, the BJP controls the majority of local bodies in the state.

For the ruling partners, one of the areas of concern is the severe farmers’ discontentment. Despite a loan waiver, the government has been under fire and Devendra Fadnavis’ regime has seen a series of protest marches, including the Nashik-Mumbai march by adivasis and farmers, which drew national attention to the plight of farmers. In the Palghar and Thane districts, there is severe opposition to Prime Minister Modi’s bullet train project.

Many surprises may spring up in the run up to the polls as at least a dozen senior leaders of all political parties are expected to switch sides during and after the seat-sharing and nomination processes. The names doing the rounds include some of those who had changed sides ahead of the 2014 polls, too.

Meanwhile, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar seems to be reconsidering his decision not to contest Lok Sabha polls following pressure from his top lieutenants. Pawar is currently a Rajya Sabha member.

As the polls near, the message from Nagpur, the headquarters of RSS, is going to be important. Incidentally, union minister Nitin Gadkari, who could emerge as a possible contender for prime minister if the BJP/NDA falls drastically short of the half-way mark, has been making some curious remarks that seem to be aimed at the Modi-Shah duo.   

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Maharashtra: a tale of two mega alliances

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