Maharashtra assembly elections are a classic case of self destructive politics. What looked like an open and shut case just a few weeks back has assumed the form of a multi dimensional battle. If one would have conducted a simple survey last month, it was understood Maharashtra was going to fall into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena lap like a ripe fruit when polls took place on October 15.
Ripened, indeed, by the vast number of scams, farmers’ suicides and frustration of the common man on basic issues of governance.
But politics is a strange creature and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress have been infused with hope to live another day or at least fight another bout.
The coming apart of the BJP and Shiv Sena alliance at the state level has opened a vista of new possibilities, especially as it followed the parting of the Congress and NCP as well. The race is now four-pronged if not five, considering that Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is not likely to emerge as the leader.
The interesting question to ask here would be about which party could emerge as the single largest party in the 288-member Legislative Assembly and whether that party would be able to form government on its own strength.
But before that, the unfolding of decades’ old partnerships... The first party to bite the bullet was the Congress which had declared a list of candidates without as much as bothering to consult its ally of 15 years in government – the NCP. The NCP being miffed at such unilateralism called off the alliance; some say bringing things to such a pass was a pre-meditated move of Rahul Gandhi, who wanted to test waters alone.
On the face of it, the coalition broke as the NCP had wanted to contest from 144 seats, i.e. 30 more than it did in 2009. The party was also demanding that the chief minister's post be made rotational for an equal period of time in line with the model that Congress had earlier followed in Jammu & Kashmir. Further, there were murmurs about an ego clash between former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Ajit Pawar, who has chief ministerial ambitions but had lately been belittled by Chavan.
However, the NCP is keeping its doors ajar and has publically announced that it would be open for a post-poll alliance with the Congress, if need be. It was also being assumed that NCP chief Sharad Pawar had been in talks with BJP even before the partnership with Congress had been called off, but both parties have rubbished such claims.
The separation of the BJP and Shiv Sena – an alliance that has held for 25 years – is more complex. Like the NCP, the BJP wanted to contest 135 seats but came down to asking for 130 as a compromise. Shiv Sena, on the other hand, was willing to concede about 119, giving 18 to smaller allies and keeping 151 for itself. This was unacceptable to the BJP and particularly Amit Shah, who had told the state unit to stick to 130 or kiss the Shiv Sena goodbye.
Rajiv Pratap Rudy is another leader being blamed for having apparently gone public about the break up much before a formal decision. Shiv Sena’s mouth piece Saamna’s editorial was quick to hit back saying BJP-Shiv Sena government was “what the 11 crore people of Maharashtra wanted. Those who trampled these sentiments are enemies of Maharashtra.” But Shiv Sena was also at fault for going public with its 151:119:18 formula at a party conclave without finalizing the arrangement with the BJP first.
The fact is that Uddhav Thackeray, often seen as a mild alternative to the firebrand Bal Thackeray, did not want to be perceived to be bending too much and wanted to take a stand that would position him as a strong willed leader.
Under Uddhav’s leadership, Sena had bagged 18 seats in the General Elections held this May while BJP had got an impressive 23, mainly due to the Narendra Modi brand.
And this is possibly where the crux of the problem lay. Modi has for a long time not had the best of relations with the Shiv Sena; he was amongst the only tall leaders in the BJP who had skipped Bal Thackeray’s funeral. It is well known that first Bal Thackeray and then Uddhav had openly backed L K Advani and later Sushma Swaraj rather than Modi for prime ministership.
Apparently, rumour mills have it that Modi has a grouse against Shiv Sena and for this reason had completely ignored Uddhav in joint rallies and deliberately not evoked the Thackeray contribution (at least till the alliance was intact) for the saffron wave flourishing in the state. His warming up to the MNS, which BJP wanted to show as an alternative option to Shiv Sena, only worsened matters.
The absence of veteran peace makers like Pramod Mahajan, Gopinath Munde and the sidelining of the old brigade meant that ties could not be salvaged. It seemed like an all out war for the two parties with the Shiv Sena targetting the Gujarati community in Mumbai in the same vein as Bhaiyyas or Biharis and also asking Modi to stop bragging about the Gujarat model of development.
What set media abuzz amidst all this were two phone calls made by Uddhav to his estranged cousin Raj Thackeray on the pretext to ask after his health. Speculation was rife about the potential of the brothers joining hands and the impact it would have on the numbers. Despite all his swagger and close aping of the old supremo, Raj Thackeray has not been able to make a decisive dent in Maharashtra politics and his party MNS failed to open an account in these General Elections though it put up candidates in 10 seats. However, he had hurt the prospects of BJP-Shiv Sena badly in the previous state elections and also local body polls.
While Raj Thackeray would be unable to pull off a victory on his own, his support could be crucial given the new dynamic in the state, if he manages to grab a decent enough number of seats, particularly in his strongholds in Mumbai, Thane and Nashik.
The other factor in play could be the Dalit vote, and this is apparent considering that both the BJP and the Shiv Sena have been wooing Ramdas Athawale, who is already a Rajya Sabha member courtesy the BJP. Uddhav has openly offered him the deputy chief ministership if the Republican Party of India (RPI) comes over to the Sena side.
Had the multiple coalition splits not happened in the state, the factors that were actually expected to have an impact on elections were the multiple scams and corruption charges that have besieged the Congress-NCP alliance in the last 15 years. A huge issue was the Adarsh housing scam which came to light in 2010 involving illegal construction and allocation of flats on prime South Mumbai land, which was meant for Kargil war heroes and their families.
There are other multi-crore scandals that have names of the Pawar family linked to them. Construction of township projects like Lavasa is an example. Sharad Pawar’s nephew and Water Resources Minister, Ajit Pawar, is supposed to have spent a fortune of nearly Rs 70,000 crore on irrigation projects but only a shockingly abysmal 0.1% additional land has come under irrigation.
The most distressing is the colossal problem of farmers and loans that they are unable to repay. It is believed that nearly 50,000 farmers have committed suicide in the past 15 years due to extreme poverty and poor irrigation facilities that have caused crop failure.
The issue of giving separate statehood to Vidarbha has once again come alive with Narendra Modi vowing to keep Maharashtra in one piece as long as he is in New Delhi even though the BJP is generally in favour of smaller states.
These factors would have seriously damaged the chances of the Congress-NCP combine and it was speculated that the incumbent coalition would not have garnered even 100 seats, had it not been for the new development of both the alliances coming apart.
As of now the BJP still has a strong chance and so does Shiv Sena but they could cut each other’s votes, thus giving a new lease of life to the Congress and the NCP. The reverse is equally possible with the Congress and NCP slashing each other.
It also remains to be seen whether Narendra Modi’s tantivy campaign would over-ride most of everything else that comes in the way, much like his stupendous performance earlier at the national level elections, and help the BJP realize its shatpratishat (100% BJP) dream. Or whether other factors will come into play making these assembly elections one of the most interesting in some time.