August 09, 2014

MAHASANGRAM - Part I


WHAT'S ON THE LINE FOR THE MAJOR REGIONAL PARTIES


The beauty of politics in a vast country like ours is that every few months, some or the other state goes to the polls. It has been less than two months since the results of the 2014 General Elections were announced and the battle for the states of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jammu Kashmir scheduled later in the year has already begun. The BJP which recorded its best ever figures is keen to carry forward the momentum; aware that the it just cannot afford to drop its guard, considering its dependence on regional satraps like Jaya, Mamta and Navin to pass key legislation in the Rajya Sabha. With the Modi government yet to do anything significant on its promise of 'acche din', victory in the states is far from guaranteed. On the other hand, the Congress which failed to even cross the 50 mark in the General Elections is hoping to thwart the NaMo bandwagon by giving a tough fight to the NDA. The grand old party is expected to give its best shot after questions were raised about its future, especially under the leadership of the Gandhis. With the Third Front being wiped off in the parliamentary elections and its constituents not having any major presence in any of these states, it is rather easy to write it off at least as far as the upcoming polls are concerned.

The failure of the federal front and the magnitude of BJP's victory has raised several questions over the future of regional satraps in the country. I know many will point out that even the Congress - the largest party in the country too was virtually wiped out even in its traditional strongholds and hence the superb numbers got by the saffron outfit could be passed off as a 'fluke'. However, when was the last time you saw Mayawati's BSP failing to even open its account or Mulayum struggling to win seats outside of his family dominions. Moreover, in the era of coalition politics, the saffron outfit's tally of 282 is unprecedented; no party has been able to enjoy such a comfortable majority on the floor of the house since 1984. Against this backdrop and with the elections to the Maharashtra state assembly just around the corner, I want to analyze the poll prospects of the three major regional parties in the state. With most of the smaller parties failing to do well in the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls, it will be interesting to see if the NCP and the two Senas can deliver a power packed performance this winter.

Will the Tiger make a Kill? To understand how the fortunes of a political outfit can change over a span of few months, one needs to trace the graph of one of the country's oldest regional party - the Shiv Sena (SS). After
Shiv Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray
the death of the firebrand Marathi leader, the controversial yet charismatic Bal Thackeray, many felt that the SS would die a slow death. In fact, many political observers had virtually written the obituary of the Sena - three consecutive defeats in the state assembly polls, the split in the ranks after Raj Thackeray walked out of the organization and the 'inability' of present chief and Thackeray Senior's son Uddhav to rally the cadre behind him were cited as the prime reasons. Even before the big polls, as many as four incumbent MPs deserted the party to join the UPA after accusing Uddhav of being 'inaccessible'. Probably, the biggest blow came when party's spokesperson Rahul Narvekar who is known to be close to the Sena's first family left the SS to join the NCP. At the same time, with Raj Thackeray taking on a more aggressive stance on the 'Sons of the soil' movement, many believed that he was the right person to take the Thackeray legacy forward. Moreover, in the run up to the General Elections, the relations between the Sena and the BJP were far from cordial, especially with the BJP sending overtures to the MNS. However, the May 16 results might have brought lot of relief to Uddhav. Even as the NDA swept to power, the Sena won a staggering 18 of the 20 seats it contested in the state.


Buoyed by the success of the big polls, the Shiva Sena and its Pramukh are sensing victory ahead of the state polls too. However, the big worrying factor will be the relations with its saffron ally - the BJP. After crossing the 272 mark on its own, the saffron outfit now wants to dictate terms in the seat sharing arrangement in Maharashtra. According to some reports, the BJP want the two allies to re-negotiate the terms of alliance under which the national party contests 117 seats while leaving the remaining 170 odd to the Sena in the state assembly elections. This agreement brokered by Bal Thackeray and Pramod Mahajan effectively rules out the possibility of a Chief Minister from the BJP. In fact, in spite of being the second largest constituent of the NDA, Modi inducted just one MP from the SS in his cabinet. While the Sainiks were said to be sulking, Modi refused to budge. After all, the SS had initially suggested the candidature of Sushma Swaraj for the post of NDA's PM nominee. While he may have survived the scare ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, it remains to be seen if Uddhav can somehow manage to save the two decade old alliance with the BJP. Meanwhile, the SS chief has already made public his ambitions to become the CM of the state. Another cause of concern would be to see off the threat posed by his rival and cousin - Raj Thackeray. Although the MNS failed to cause any split in the anti-UPA votes like it did in 2009, there is little doubt that the it would pose a big threat to the prospects of the SS in the state elections. The 2014 Maharashtra assembly polls is a big test for the Sena and its supremo; a victory signal the rise of a new regional satrap on the Indian political scenario and would justify Bal Thackeray's decision of choosing his real son over his nephew. A defeat though would be catastrophic and one should not be surprised if it would be a blow from which the Sena never emerges again.

Is the clock ticking for NCP? While NDA's victory may have just heralded the beginning of 'acche din' for the Shiv Sena, the other big regional player - the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) seems to be heading
NCP chief Sharad Pawar
towards its worst showing in the state. 2014 has been a forgetful year for former Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar's outfit. Having been in power in alliance with the Congress for 15 years in Mumbai and for a decade at the Centre as a leading constituent of the UPA, the party seems to be in dire straits (Link). In the May 2014 polls, Pawar's party managed to win just 4 seats even as the BJP-Sena alliance walked away with a grand tally of 42 seats. In fact, the outfit failed to do well in other states too and in the process, ended up losing its tag as a 'national' party. The biggest reason for this rout was the fact that most of the party's top leadership has been caught in some controversy or scandal. As the Agriculture Minister, supremo Sharad Pawar was a complete failure; in fact, he was seen doing more work as the Chairman of the ICC than taking steps to curb price rise. His daughter Supriya Sule who was one of the four NCP candidates to make the cut to the Lok Sabha in 2014 has been accused of owning stakes in IPL teams some years ago. And how can one forget the one and only Ajit Pawar. Known in party circles as Ajit Dada, the nephew of the Pawar senior is a loud mouth. Apart from being one of the prime accused in the multi-crore Irrigation Scam, the Deputy CM is known to speak 'rubbish' at political rallies. Meanwhile, even the relations between the Congress and the NCP were far from cordial in the run up to the polls. Perhaps sensing that the odds were stacked against his outfit, Sharad Pawar decided to chicken out and instead became a Rajya Sabha MP. Moreover, the Maratha strongman and his colleague Praful Patel had on numerous occasions predicted that the NDA would do better than the UPA causing severe embarrassment to the Congress.


Now coming to the state elections, the problems for NCP still persist. The relations with the Congress have only soured further; the party's bid to have the incumbent CM Prithviraj Chauhan replaced was foiled after the Congress President refused to budge. Buoyed by the confidence that Sonia Gandhi has shown in him, Chauhan has made it clear that the Congress is ready to go alone in the state polls. At the same time, Pawar's outfit too has gone on the offensive, asking the INC to allocate it more seats since it out did the national party in the big elections. With the tensions between the two parties escalating by the day, seat sharing is going to be extremely difficult. Apart from the coalition troubles, the NCP, like the Congress is fighting anti-incumbency spanning over 15 years. With the INC-NCP government not having a spectacular report card to boast of, winning a straight forth term is next to impossible. At the same time, the NCP does not have any strong leaders to get the votes. The party chief is aging and if the May 2014 polls are anything to go by, he seems to have lost a lot of ground even in his traditional stronghold of Western Maharashtra. Ajit Pawar and R R Patil too have seen a decline in their popularity. Former Home Minister Chaggan Bhujbal was reported to be keen to rejoin the Shiv Sena till his request was publicly turned down by Uddhav Thackeray. The state polls are a big test for the NCP; although there is no doubt that they are going to drop seats, the party leadership will hope to cut down its loses. One possibility that the NCP will be looking at is a possible break-up between the BJP-SS alliance after the polls. In that scenario, both the saffron parties may contemplate joining hands with Pawar to form the next government in Maharashtra.

Make or Break Moment for Raj: Coming to the third regional player in the state, the state assembly polls could be the big test for Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Formed in early 2006
MNS leader Raj Thackeray
after the dynamic Raj walked out of the Shiv Sena over differences with his cousin Uddhav, the MNS is yet to make a big mark in state politics. Of course, it did exceedingly well in 2009 when it cut into the NDA votes helping the UPA do well, first in the General Elections and then in the state polls. The party had a good debut winning as many as 13 seats in the Maharashtra assembly. However, ever since that spark, the MNS has failed to 'sparkle'. During the campaign for the 2014 polls, the BJP tried to bring the two Senas together as part of the 'Mahayuti' to fight the UPA. However, the plan failed with the Sena accusing the BJP of going against the coalition dharma. When Raj declared his support to the candidature of Narendra Modi as the PM of India, BJP President Rajnath Singh turned down the offer, making it clear that the alliance with Shiv Sena was strong. Anyway, many were expecting that the MNS would still go on to win at least one seat and dash the hopes of the BJP-SS combine on several seats. In fact, the hopes of the UPA of doing well in the western state were completely based on the MNS factor. After all, both the Senas have their ideologies based in the 'Sons of the Soil' movement. However, all that proved to be a dud with Raj's outfit scoring a duck.


With the state polls just a few months away, the MNS still has a lot of ground to cover. Of course, while the results of the 2014 elections may be something that Raj and his followers would like to put behind them, the fact remains that the MNS has a strong presence in several pockets in the state. However, the challenge would be to convert that support into seats. A big fillip for the MNS would be if Raj Thackeray would contest the polls. In absence of other famous leaders, Raj's entry into electoral fray would instill a lot of confidence in the party cadre. Going beyond the 20 mark will be difficult. However, getting less than that would certainly raise questions over Raj's leadership, especially if the Shiv Sena chief Uddhav becomes the CM of Maharashtra. The chances of MNS being the part of the next government are extremely remote; the only possible case would be if the BJP ties up with the MNS and the NCP in the post poll scenario. And to be frank, that is highly unlikely .

For more posts in this series: Mahasangram (Link)