Mumbai: On paper, it is a clear five-way contest for power in Maharashtra. But scratch the surface, and it looks like an unlikely "Gang of Four" is ranged against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
When Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray compared Team Modi`s campaign to the Bijapur general Afzal Khan`s army of conquerors, the flickering hopes of a rapprochement with estranged ally BJP were snuffed out. Though the two parties have enjoyed a hot-and-cold relationship for 25 long years, this was the worst assault by the Sena on the Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the October 15 Assembly Elections.
The Sena and the BJP shared power in Maharashtra in 1995-99, in the earlier Atal Bihari Vajapyee-led NDA government and the present government of Modi. On Sep 25, the BJP unilaterally broke its alliance with the Sena, triggering a no-holds-barred Sena-BJP war that few could have thought of even six months ago.
But the Sena-BJP divorce has led to a surprise turn of events, with every player now seeing a ray of hope on the road to power.
These include the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which too broke their alliance and went separate ways on the same day the BJP dumped the Sena.
The `Gang of Four` -- the Sena, the Congress, the NCP and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) -- are taking on the BJP more than one another.
Under the circumstances, the Maharashtra BJP -- handicapped by the lack of a widely acceptable face for the chief minister`s post -- is entirely dependent on Modi to win votes.
Modi has become the Maharashtra BJP`s messiah. His personalised campaign, his promise to make Maharashtra the "No. 1" state and his stringent criticism of all parties in the state barring the Sena are the talking points.
Gleeful at the sudden turn of events, all the other parties are now determined to turn the tables on Modi and the BJP.
Ironically, the four parties -- the Sena, MNS, NCP and Congress -- are criticising each other less but are shrill while attacking the "outsider" Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah.
They are also harping on the perceived insults and threats to Maharashtra, the alleged attempts to dilute Mumbai`s importance, and the feared carving out of Vidarbha.
The bad news for the BJP is that there are sufficient takers to this line of argument, despite denials by the BJP that it has no intention to split Maharashtra.
In the process, the traditional poll planks of caste and regions have been relegated to the background.
In fact, most star politicians in the state are openly asking if Modi is the prime minister "of India or Gujarat"?
In the midst of all the brouhaha, the BJP`s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has come out in support of the BJP, which feels it has a very good chance of seizing power in the state.