With fifteen years of anti-incumbency staring them in the face, most of the political pundits had been predicting a Congress-NCP rout in the election-bound state of Maharashtra and a victory for the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. However, this was before the split of both the alliances and the decision of all the four parties to face the electorate alone.
But now that the split has taken place, due to various reasons like seat sharing to confidence of pulling it off alone to personal ambitions, the Assembly elections in the western state has become a four-cornered fight, as well as interesting with various possibilities that could throw up after the results have been announced. Following is a look at where the four main parties in the fray stand and whether they can convince the voters to vote for them.
In the 2014 General Elections in May, the BJP-Shiv Sena combine had done exceptionally well in Maharashtra, winning 42 of the 48 seats in the state. Anti-incumbency, corruption and developmental issues, both at the Centre as well as at the state level were prime reasons for the good showing as was the so-called ‘Narendra Modi wave’. Not much has changed in the last couple of months and the party is leaving no stones unturned to sell the popularity of PM Modi with the slogan ‘chalo chalein Modi ke saath’. Needless to say he is their star campaigner in the state.
Minus its 25-year old ally the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s strategy has been to tell the voters that states can do better by being in line with the Central government. They are also playing the development card as against the 15-year misrule by the Congress-NCP government. The BJP does feel that it is their best chance to capture power in Maharashtra for the first time on its own and probably emboldened by its Lok Sabha results it refused to be treated like a junior partner in the state by the Shiv Sena. It also feels that it may be able to win a chunk of the urban votes particularly the seats that the Sena refused to give them. However, the going may not be that smooth for the saffron party.
Firstly, the party has no big face in Maharashtra and it has not announced the name of a CM candidate. The death of Gopinath Munde who had a strong base in the state and was its Dalit face was a huge blow for the BJP. The name of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari has been doing the rounds but there has been no official announcement of the same. Plus, various reports have said that Gadkari is unwilling to return to his home state. Secondly, the BJP is strong in areas like Vidarbha but after the split it has to counter the Shiv Sena as well as the Raj Thackeray’s MNS in areas like Mumbai and Konkan.
According to an opinion poll done for two TV channels, BJP will emerge as the single largest party in Maharashtra, winning about one-third of the seats but it will not get a majority on its own. If this happens one can see another round of political churning in the state. Rumours of NCP aligning with the BJP has been doing the rounds for a while now. The other case scenario could be 'back to business' between Shiv Sena and BJP. Gadkari did say recently that the Shiv Sena-BJP were ‘natural allies’ and ‘may need to come together’ in future.
Shiv Sena -
The last time that the Shiv Sena was in power (1995-1999), the 'remote' was in the hands of the founder of the party Bal Thackeray. From then till now, much water has flown under the bridge. The party's founder Balasaheb is dead, his nephew Raj has formed his own party, the MNS, and the alliance with the BJP has broken down. Given the above scenario, the Sena, especially Uddhav, must be desperate to do well in the upcoming polls. If the BJP manages to cross the finishing line, then it will be a big blow to the prestige of the party which considers Maharashtra as its stronghold. Also, it will be a personal blow for Uddhav as many feel that he does not have the 'charisma' of his father and it will give credence to murmurs that the Shiv Sena has been on a decline after the passing away of Bal Thackeray.
The last time Shiv Sena and BJP fought separately was before 1989. That was the year their alliance was sealed. So now after the split, if MNS eats into Shiv Sena votes, then the possibility of BJP emerging as the single largest party may become a reality. In 1995, when they had formed the government, Shiv Sena had won 73 seats and the BJP 65. But the MNS had not been born then.
In the course of the campaigning, Uddhav and his men have been saying that the BJP stabbed it in the back and they have also taken potshots at PM Modi. However, BJP leaders including Modi have said that they will not say anything against the Sena. Thus, the question to be asked is – Will the Shiv Sena go back to the BJP if it falls short of majority and will it compromise on the issue of CM's post if the saffron party gets more seats than the Sena. To be noted is the fact that Shiv Sena has really not been in a hurry to recall its sole member in the Union Cabinet, Anant Geete and nor has the BJP insisted on his removal. Another pertinent question – Will a post-poll scenario see the two Thackeray cousins getting back together if the situation so demands? An opinion poll did say that the MNS may win 27 seats in the 288 member house. If that happens he may just end up being the kingmaker.
Congress leader and the man who was the chief minister of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chavan, till the Assembly was dissolved in September, is in an unenviable position today. He is the face of a ‘beleaguered’ party which is facing massive anti-incumbency and charges of scams and corruption. Not to forget the fact that it was also besieged by infighting and revolt by a senior member, Narayan Rane, not too long ago. There had been clamour by a section of the state Congress to get rid of Chavan. And though Chavan has a personal clean image, his tendency to sit over files and the image of policy paralysis by his government will be something that is sure to impact the Congress negatively.
It has been asked whether Congress should have removed Chavan from the CM's post and brought in someone else to breathe a new lease of life in the party's organisation and whether such a move would have helped. It was no secret that the top rung of the NCP wanted to see the back of Chavan. And even though Congress has said that NCP's ambitions and especially Ajit Pawar's aspirations to become the CM led to the split of the combine, the fact is that the irrigation scam and Adarsh scam amongst others, together with drought and farmers suicide is going to hit the grand old party hard.
The Congress won 75 seats in 1999, 62 seats in 2004 and 82 seats in 2009 Assembly polls in the state out of total 288 seats. But as of now the above figures must be looking like a dream to the party which in all probability knows that it may not be able to match the results of the previous three elections.
Nationalist Congress Party (NPC) and its chief Sharad Pawar draw their might from Western Maharashtra, a region where the party won half its total Assembly strength in 2009. However, this was the same region where it won just a handful of seats in 2014 Lok Sabha polls and were humbled in their stronghold of Marathwada. Thus, it is not difficult to fathom that Pawar must be desperate to do well here in order to be in the reckoning for a shot at forming the government in the state.
However, it can be said that Pawar’s party have a tough battle on their hands. Though senior leaders are loyal to both the NCP chief and his nephew Ajit, in recent times few of them have shifted loyalties to other parties, particularly the BJP. Moreover, in southern Maharashtra, the NCP has been losing considerable ground as a result of the weakening of the cooperative sector. In this region the NCP has been challenged by Raju Shetti-led Swabhimani Shetkari Paksha who was re-elected as MP from the sugar belt of Hatkanangale.
Another concern for the NCP may be Pune even though it controls the outer and semi-urban seats. In the General Elections the people had voted for the BJP in seats like Solapur and Sangli. Pune city had also voted for the BJP in a big way. On the other hand the NCP must be hoping that the fight between the BJP and Shiv Sena comes in handy for them. Moreover, the allegations of scams in irrigation projects to the tune of Rs 70,000 crores against Ajit Pawar during his term as water resources minister, which forced him to resign as deputy
CM in 2012, may also have an impact on the poll results. Also, NCP is in trouble if the electorate have not forgotten Ajit’s infamous ‘urine’ remarks in Indapur, near Baramati, in April 2013, in response to a Solapur farmer's strike, demanding more water.
However, what must be somewhat of a solace for the NCP is the fact that they performed better than the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls, even though marginally, and having shed the baggage of the grand old party for the Assembly polls they must be fancying their chances.
Thus, as of now one can safely say that the Assembly elections in Maharashtra has been thrown wide open after the breakup of the two main alliances. While there is huge pressure on the BJP to maintain the winning streak especially after the debacle in by-elections in some states recently, the Congress needs to prove that it is on the path of recovery after the humiliating defeat in May this year in the General Elections. On the other hand, the Shiv Sena, wants to send out the signal that the new generation can carry forward the legacy of Balasaheb Thackeray and the NCP has a point to prove that it has the wherewithal to exist independently and emerge out of the shadows of the Congress party. Not to forget Raj Thackeray who one can say is fighting for relevance in the Western state of India.