The snapping of both the political alliances in Maharashtra — between the Congress and NCP on one hand and the Shiv Sena and the BJP on the other, on the eve of the Maharashtra assembly elections — has injected an element of acute uncertainty in the already-confused political situation in the politically-crucial western state. Considering that this is the first full-fledged trial of strength between the Congress and the BJP after the Lok Sabha polls (leaving aside the by-elections, which have limited significance) this assembly slugfest is of immense political importance.
Apart from the four major players in the state, another contender that is weighty is the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) of the late Balasaheb Thackeray’s estranged nephew Raj Thackeray, which has pockets of influence and could well be a factor to reckon with in the event of a ‘hung’ assembly.
There is no knowing which way the wind will finally blow. But one thing is clear—that the state is making a transition to post-poll alignments rather than pre-poll alliances and jockeying for power will continue even after the elections, with little likelihood of a single party majority government.
There has been much talk that the NCP, which has been riding on Congress shoulders, has a secret understanding with the BJP for the two parties to forge an alliance after the elections, but NCP supremo Sharad Pawar has been vehemently denying this. In fact, Congress leaders have been at pains to claim that it was because of this ‘secret understanding’ that the NCP slammed the door on the Congress.
Notwithstanding Pawar’s denials, the NCP has kept open a channel of communication with the BJP through former civil aviation minister Praful Patel who is close to Pawar and yet, is also in the good books of the BJP. But if such an eventuality is worked out, there would be considerable hard bargaining before an understanding is clinched with some ministerial positions at the Centre being part of the deal.
Shrewd and wily as Sharad Pawar is, he is acutely conscious that there could well be a leadership vacuum in the Congress, with Sonia Gandhi not in enough good health to don the mantle of party chief again and son Rahul possibly being not acceptable as leader to many second-string leaders in the party.
Much though Pawar is a man of stature, his acceptability to rank and file Congressmen is a matter of serious doubt. The Gandhis—Sonia and Rahul—don’t consider him trustworthy and will not lend their weight to a bigger role for him.
As for the BJP, it will leave no stone unturned to come to power in Maharashtra, but after the demise of Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde in tragic circumstances in yesteryears, it is left with no one of stature or statewide acceptability in the current leadership. The BJP heavyweight from Maharashtra, Nitin Gadkari, is not keen to move from the Centre, but he could be persuaded to accept the mantle, especially if the RSS steps in to appeal to him.
While a BJP-NCP alliance cannot be ruled out, there is also the likelihood of Raj Thackeray gravitating towards the BJP if the numbers add up to the winning mark. Raj is well-disposed towards Modi, but is piqued that the BJP has spurned his overtures in the past, for fear of losing Shiv Sena support in Parliament. There is no doubt that even at this stage, the Shiv Sena would not brook the coming together of the BJP and the MNS and would do everything in its power to prevent this from happening.
A great deal would depend on the number of seats each party is able to get. A poor showing by the Shiv Sena in the Assembly elections would shift the balance of power towards the MNS and vice versa.
Uddhav Thackeray has played the gamble of his life by opting to go it alone. He will be most keenly watched for his ability to turn the break with the BJP to his advantage. But it is also true that a major setback for the Shiv Sena would be blamed on the snapping of his alliance with the BJP, for which he would be held responsible more than anyone else.
His chief ministerial ambitions may well have soured the pitch for Uddhav because that is being seen as the main cause of his break with the BJP. The big question now is: will the BJP allow Uddhav to scuttle any MNS move to come closer to it or would it opt to forge links with MNS and, and as a consequence, keep Uddhav Thackeray at arm’s length?
For the BJP, in the absence of a charismatic state-level leader, the central leadership will have to play a much bigger role in the elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a charisma which is without parallel and he would be called upon to campaign extensively. The cadres of the RSS may also be drafted for door-to-door canvassing. The stakes for party president Amit Shah will also be very high because this would be his first full-fledged state election after he took office.
The Congress, after a lot of dilly-dallying, opted to go to polls with Prithviraj Chavan at the helm, despite it being known that he is uncharismatic and undynamic. It remains to be seen whether the party high command would be able to rein in the likes of Ashok Chavan, who is a wily operator and is also known to be unscrupulous.
The battle lines are drawn for an unusual battle, in which all the rival big players will cross swords with each other. While a ‘hung’ assembly is a foregone conclusion, which party will come out triumphant and how stable will the new dispensation be is a question that begs an answer.