Battle for Big Brother

Last Updated: Sunday, October 11, 2009 - 12:43

Shashank Chouhan

You might have thought that the conclusion of General Elections 2009 in May signalled an end to the confusion and chaos about political partnerships, mud-slinging, snubbing and all the speculation that tends to put the country on tenterhooks for months.

How wrong could you be!

The assembly polls in Maharashtra are part-II of all that you saw wide-eyed in May and it promises more intensity and anxiety for all parties concerned. The UPA may have raised its flag again at the Centre, but its fortune is yet untested in this western state.

Cong-NCP fight for supremacy

More than the UPA, it is the hour of reckoning for the Congress party. The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party’s Democratic Front government has ruled the state for ten years now. Anti-incumbency would be the biggest worry of alliance stalwarts. The Antonys & Digvijays would want to see victory and declare a Congress wave sweeping India. But more importantly, they now want to build a base in states, where they have been in partnerships (off and on) for far too many electoral seasons.

The Grand Old Party of India wants to reclaim its stature of being the original Big Boss.

That game began in the General Elections when Sonia Gandhi kept Amar Singh waiting for so long that the Samajwadi Party had to ultimately back out, spewing venom. Observers believe this gave Congress the edge- it didn’t say yes to an alliance as it (rightly) bet on Rahul Gandhi’s daring visits to Dalit heartland; and it didn’t say no to SP either, just in case.

Cut to Maharashtra and replace the crafty Amar Singh with the towering Maratha Sharad Pawar. Even little over a week before the deadline of filing nominations, there was ‘no communication from 10 Janpath,’ the NCP chief rued. To add to his frustration, leaders like General Secretary Digvijay Singh and former Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh proposed a merger of NCP with the Congress and the latter going it alone at the hustings.

These off-field ‘pressure tactics’ were backed by the stellar performance of their party in May polls. Congress romped home with 17 seats (out of 26 it contested), while NCP could manage only 8 (out of 22) from a total of 48 Lok Sabha seats. Congress tally went up from 13 in 2004 while NCP came down one seat. Not only that, the break-up in state constituencies also lent Congress the posture that irritated Pawar- it led in 81 segments while NCP dominated 58 assembly seats.

All that and a weakening NCP in western Maharashtra, slicing of votes by Raj Thackeray’s MNS, fall in farmer suicides, delimitation and inter-party rebellions made it appear as if the Congress could indeed go it alone and was set on a revivalist path for Bihar and Jharkhand too.

But all it did was drive a hard bargain. While it fought on 164 seats in 2004 state elections, this time it will contest from ten constituencies more. NCP’s battle will be limited to 114 seats vis-à-vis 124 of last polls. This could seem like a neat deal for the Congress, but the fact is that the NCP’s increased vote share of over one percent in the recent Lok Sabha elections, uncertainty in Mumbai-Thane region, opposition from the newly formed Third Front called Republican Left Democratic Fund (RLDF) led by Republican Party of India (RPI), as also its own inability to slog alone, forced Congress to compromise.

The hard bargain cost both camps some leaders, who are dissatisfied with the quid pro quo approach between Congress-NCP. From Congress, MLAs from Ahmadnagar and Sangli will contest as Independents as the NCP has been given those seats. NCP itself faces rebellion in constituencies of Solapur, where a former minister will take on the Congress candidate as an Independent.

Such compromises, like dropping sitting MLAs, are no solution to fighting anti-incumbency and may cost the alliance crucial votes. The episode of Amravati ticket being given to the son of the President, who will now be facing the sitting Congress MLA from the area, highlights another aspect of deserving candidates being overlooked in favour of second-generation claimants of political legacies in Maharashtra.

Dynamics for the BJP, Shiv Sena

The main Opposition in the state is not untouched by the rebel phenomenon either. By September 20, the BJP had received over hundred resignation letters from unhappy MLAs, ticket-hopefuls and supporters against the giving up of some seats for Shiv Sena.

Guhaghar MLA Vinay Natu, for example, has threatened to stand as an Independent after his constituency was given to the Shiv Sena’s Ramdas Kadam in lieu of Ghatkopar which has been handed over to Poonam Mahajan, the daughter of late Pramod Mahajan- some one the BJP is missing sorely. Sena MP Pradeep Jaiswal quit, accusing Uddhav Thackeray’s PA of selling tickets; he wanted one from Aurangabad.

The desertions in the saffron camp began after speculation that the Shiv Sena(SS) would have an upper hand in seat-sharing, as BJP was shadowed by a crisis of leadership. While the BJP ship is not exactly wrecked, it still seems in need of steering. Last election, it contested 117 seats while this time it’s got 119. SS gets the lion’s share this time as well- 169(down from 2 from 2004, when the alliance won 119 seats vs. Cong-NCP’s 139 out of a total of 288).

The alliance between BJP & Shiv Sena goes back decades and has been steady on the basis of similar ideology. But the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena- a splinter group that separated from the Shiv Sena in 2006, when Raj, the nephew of Bal Thackeray fell out with Uddhav in a public struggle for power - has hijacked the Sena’s agenda of Marathi Manoos and has gained ground since. Though it could manage only 4% of total votes in the 2009 General Elections, MNS’ performance in the Mumbai-Thane urban region helped Congress-NCP comfortably sweep the area.

Shiv Sena-BJP has traditionally commanded the urban vote share in Mumbai-Thane that sends 60 MLAs to the assembly. The MNS grabbed votes in lakhs here and came second at some places. A repeat of such a scenario paints a scary picture for the Sena-BJP front because in the national election, no one expects ‘sons of soil’ issue to play out; this being a state poll, Raj’s opening of account is almost certain and would hurt the former further.

To counter this threat, the Sena proposed Uddhav as the front’s CM candidate. He was on a countryside tour before elections a la Rahul Gandhi to get some dejected farmers on his side. The tour was important as the Sena-BJP had earlier allotted seven seats to the Shetkari Sangathan of farmer leader Sharad Joshi, who is this time not with the saffron alliance.

The X-factor

Joshi has joined a new grouping, making the contest triangular in Maharashtra. While farmer vote is essential to win any election in India, it is the Dalit-Tribal vote that could prove to be a game changer. There are at least 50 seats, where the Dalit population is more than 15% and around 30 where the Aadivasi population is over 20%. To capture this lucrative vote bank, eighteen Left and Dalit parties have come together in an alliance called the Republican Left Democratic Front. It comprises various factions of RPI, the JD(S), CPI, CPI(M), SP, Shetkari Sangathan, LJP etc.

This alliance would also target Muslims, who could tilt the result in 38 seats. However, this front is already in shambles with the RPI(Gawai) faction deciding to go it alone in Vidarbha.

This coalition is a serious threat to the Cong-NCP, which has traditionally been getting votes of Dalits, Tribals and Muslims. What adds to the worry of the break-up in the secular vote is the presence of that elephantine icon of Dalits- BSP supremo Mayawati. In the 2004 LS polls, the party got over 3% of votes and 4% in the subsequent assembly elections. It’s interesting to remember that Mayawati began her ‘social re-engineering’ from Maharashtra’s Shivaji Park in 2007 and gave tickets to four Brahmin candidates this May. Its vote share went upto 4.8% and it gleaned votes from NCP, Congress in Vidarbha.

The elephant is slowly, but surely, ambling towards a decisive position in Maharashtra by contesting on all seats this time.

It is, if seen from a broad perspective, a battle of brothers in the state to decide who will be the ultimate Big Brother. While the NCP has not been able to carve out a separate identity, the Shiv Sena is facing fresh troubles in its rebels. Congress may be a tad too overconfident for comfort and the BJP is riddled by its worst crisis ever. At such a testing time, the Maharashtra election would certainly be the decider of what course politics will take place in the near future- at least for the party ruling the country.



First Published: Sunday, October 11, 2009 - 12:43

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