Voters face a five-pronged array

Voters as well as common political workers loyal to different ideologies have heaved a sigh of relief over the split in the two major political alliances in the state. The Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as well as the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) will be independently contesting the coming assembly elections.

Both these alliances have survived for quite long in Maharashtra, leaving very little choice for the voter and ruining a few generations of political workers in the process. Even the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Nav Nirman Sena will stand alone, making for multi-cornered fights in most assembly segments. There are a few smaller parties which will add more colour and complexities to these keenly-contested battles.

The outcome of these crucial elections is very difficult to predict and the situation is open to all sorts of permutations and combinations in the post-poll period. The main question being discussed in political circles in Maharashtra is will Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s magic spell continue in Maharashtra or will voters exercise their own priorities in the selection of candidates?  The state BJP has taken a risk in deciding to fight the elections on its own and has also roped in a few stalwarts from other camps to increase its final tally, but the question remains whether the Modi wave is strong or not.

The BJP is going hammer and tongs at the Congress and a little mildly against the Sharad Pawar-led NCP, while not engaging in a wordy duel with its estranged partner – Shiv Sena. Its floor managers are planning big rallies — almost a dozen for Modi in different parts of the state to ensure support for its candidates. This, it hopes, will help them emerge as the single largest party in the state, which was ruled for almost 40 years by the Congress, single-handedly.

There is no evident Rahul Gandhi wave in the Congress campaign to oppose the Modi wave in the state. There is ‘Mr Clean’, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, who will secure votes for the party and several campaigns are being run on different platforms to ensure wide publicity for this media-shy CM. Chavan knows that there is strong anti-incumbency factor at work in the state, but he hopes that with the division of the saffron votes, the Congress will be in a position to retain its position.

The NCP is going all out to preserve its own areas of influence and trying to expand if possible, due to the division of votes among  the Sena-BJP on one hand and the Congress on the other. Pawar hopes that the heat generated by allegations of corruption against the NCP ministers and the public display of arrogance by a few would be absent as there is no Congress-NCP government in place. The haste with which the NCP withdrew from the government has also surprised many, knowing fully well how important it is to be in power during election times.

The NCP will depend on Pawar’s acumen in selecting candidates and using social arithmetic to score over his rivals, but one wonders how relevant and successful his old tactics will be. Much will depend on how NCP candidates use the local situation to their advantage. Solidly backed by the Maratha community and the cooperative sector to some extent, Pawar will try to raise the usual bogey of Brahminical rule by the BJP, to consolidate OBC votes for his party. He is dismayed at the fact that even the BJP, along with the Shiv Sena, has been using Chhatrapati Shivaji as their poll plank. As for the MNS, it is attacking all four parties, while the Sena as well as the NCP will have to pick their own targets.

MPCC president Manikrao Thakre has already alleged that there are underhand dealings between the BJP and the NCP to create confusion about the latter’s position. He pointed out that the NCP had been waiting for the SS-BJP to break up before Pawar broke his alliance with the Congress. The Congress knows well that unless and until it gets back supporters from the NCP, it will not regain its original dominant position.

Uddhav Thackeray has hit out hard against the BJP, blaming the immature state-level BJP leadership for breaking a 25-year old alliance, but he will have to put his best foot forward if he wants to retain his hold over the Sena.  Uddhav is taking MNS criticism very seriously and withdrew his minister from the Modi Cabinet no sooner than Raj questioned him for continuing in the government in Delhi while the alliance had broken up in Maharashtra. If he remains engaged with the MNS during the campaign, it is bound to cause him suffering in the elections. There are bound to be  rebels in the fray, but it is difficult to say whether Independents will rule the roost or be wiped out. If there is a one-party wave, then they would find it difficult and there may not be very many Independents in the House, unlike in 1995, when the state assembly had 45 of them.

Despite the reversals it has suffered in the recent bye-elections in UP and other states, the Maharashtra BJP has decided to go ahead and totally bank on Modi’s influence. Party strategists feel that voters want development and they will not be swayed either by talk of secularism or caste combinations.

The five-cornered fights in most of the 288 assembly segments in the state should make for an interesting battle of ballots and it is difficult to hazard guesses at this juncture, while parties continue to give finishing touches to their poll strategies.

  Prakash Bal Joshi

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