August 17, 2014

MAHASANGRAM - Part II


NOT-SO-FRIENDLY BANTER: BJP vs SENA & CONG vs NCP

Maharashtra is one state, where till recently the battle lines were clearly drawn between the two major political blocks in the country today. Of course, while making this observation, I have chosen to overlook both the Third Front which was 'humiliated' in the last General Elections as well as Raj Thackeray's MNS which is yet to pack a punch in the political scenario of the state. Anyway, dubbed as the saffron allies, the BJP and the Shiv Sena (SS) have been together since the early 90s. At a time when other political parties very still wary of forging electoral ties with each other and the 'Coalition Era' was in its early days, BJP leader Pramod Mahajan and Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray stuck a partnership which is still 'unbroken'. Although the two parties managed to win power in 1994 and formed the government in Maharashtra under the leadership of Manohar Joshi, they were voted out of power in 1999 and have been warning the Opposition benches in the state assembly ever since. Meanwhile, the Marathi outfit was also a part of the various NDA regimes at the Centre. On the other end of the political spectrum is the Congress-NCP alliance - a bond that has lasted for 15 years now. Pawar who broke away from the Congress to float the NCP over Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins had no problems whatsoever in allying with his former outfit for multiple terms in Mumbai as well as New Delhi.

If you think that after years of being together, the two allies may be geared up to put up a 'united' front ahead of the 2014 state polls, then you are wrong. Days before the electoral campaign begins, reports of rift between the coalition partners has 'spiced' up the battle for Maharashtra. Allegation of big-brotherly treatment, differences over seat sharing arrangements and 'irresponsible' statements by leaders has put serious question marks over the future of the major alliances in the state. In this post, I will analyze the two combinations, the issues that have caused fiction between them, the options in front of them and what will happen if the allies decide to go their separate ways.

The End of the road for the Saffron Brigade?


Nearly three months ago, the BJP-Sena and its other smaller coalition partners in the 'Mahayuti' swept the state winning as many as 42 of the 48 parliamentary seats. However, the relations between the two saffron partners has been far from cordial ever since. In spite of being the second largest constituent of the NDA, the Marathi outfit was given just one ministerial berth in the Central government. Though the Sena tried hard to bargain for more representation in the Modi regime, the PM and his party refused to budge, perhaps buoyed by the fact that they enjoy a comfortable majority in the Lower House. The SS too on its part has angered its partner by unilaterally declaring its supremo Uddhav Thackeray as the chief ministerial candidate of the saffron camp, a move that has not gone too well with the BJP. In what is seen as a clear signal to the cadre to 'think beyond the Sena', Amit Shah in his maiden speech as the new party president, has announced that the BJP would form the next government in Maharashtra, a clear indication to Matoshri that the national party would no more play second fiddle to the SS in the Vidhan Sabha polls. Since the 90s, the Shiv Sena fields candidates on nearly 170 seats while leaving the rest - approximately 120 to the BJP.

After decimating the Congress across the country in the big polls and reducing several regional players to 'irrelevance', the BJP has set its goals of expanding in hitherto 'unknown lands', including parts of rural Maharashtra. One of the reasons to appoint Amit Shah as the successor to Rajnath Singh is to expand the saffron outfit beyond its traditional base in the Hindi heartland. After registering such a big win, the party is confident that it will do exceedingly well even in the state polls, irrespective of whether it joins hand with any of the two Senas. A second reason why the BJP wants to renegotiate the seat sharing agreement with the Sena is that it has to accommodate four other smaller players who have joined hands with it, namely the Republican Party of India - Athavle (RPI-A), the Swabhiman Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS), the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha (RSP) and the Shiv Sangram. Finally, another cause of worry for the BJP is the with the Sena fielding more candidates, the chances of the next CM being from the former is even less than that of the Indian cricket team winning a test series away from the Sub-continent. The SS on its part, has tried to 'emotionally blackmail' the national party, reminding it that the Thakerays had stood with it during times, thick and thin. With Sena parmukh declaring his intentions of contesting elections, there is no way that the SS is going to accept anybody else as the next CM of the state in case the saffron camp does win the polls. Moreover, with question marks being raised about his style of leadership and following the death of its charismatic leader Balasaheb Thakeray, the SS and Uddhav have a point to prove and silence its numerous critics, once and for all.

With tempers flying high, the saffron alliance is perhaps at its weakest in its life span of two decades. While both partners may think that they will do well even if they go alone, especially with the strong anti-incumbency against the INC-NCP government the simple truth is that they will not perform well in case they break-up. Though Narendra Modi helped the BJP do well in Maharashtra, the untimely deaths of Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde has robbed the party of a credible face in the state. Also, the thought of allying with Raj Thackeray seems to be far fledged considering the performance of the MNS in the Lok Sabha elections. Similarly, the SS too does not have much of presence in several parts of the Maharashtra and hence cannot even dream of forming a regime on its own. Most importantly, the split in the partnership will end up dividing the anti-establishment votes, thereby helping the INC and the NCP. If the partners can bury their differences and fight the polls together, they are going to storm Maharashtra and form the next government. There is no doubt that the seat sharing arrangements between the two parties have to be revisited and newer allies need to be accommodated. However, if the two parties head towards 'splitsville', the two outfits might be forced to occupy the Opposition benches for a fourth consecutive term.

Are the Congress and the NCP headed for a bitter divorce?



Though they may have shared power for 15 long years in the state, the relations between the INC and Pawar's outfit have never been 'smooth'. However, the point to note is that since the beginning of the year, the tensions between them have only escalated, serious threatening their performance even if they manage to somehow hold on to their partnership. Before the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, senior leaders of the NCP including Shrad Pawar and Praful Patel had predicted that the NDA would bag more seats than the UPA. While this did come true, the paltry performance of the Congress-led coalition in the state of Maharashtra where it was reduced to six seats was certainly not expected. Accusing the incumbent CM Prithviraj Chauhan of failing in his duties, the NCP raised the bogey of revolt, asking the INC to sack him. At the same time, several NCP leaders suggested that they should contest more seats than the Congress in the state assembly elections considering that they had won more parliamentary seats than the national party three months ago. Chauhan, a Gandhi loyalist survived. After getting the blessings of the party High Command, he decided to up the ante against the NCP. At a party rally, he declared that his party was ready to go it all alone for the polls.

From the NCP's point of view, the party believes that the perception that it has been a steady fast ally of the 'corrupt' Congress has been solely responsible for its failure in the recent elections. As such, if the Congress-NCP alliance could project a new face in the assembly polls, there are chances that the anti-incumbency wave could be countered, at least to some extent. There is also a certain section that feels that dumping the Congress and fighting the polls alone could actually help 'cut electoral loses'. In that case, the party could tie-up with either the BJP or the Sena if the saffron alliance breaks up. The 2014 state elections are extremely crucial to the NCP and you can expect the leadership to bargain hard with the Congress. The INC knows that after the drubbing that it got, coming back to power for a straight fourth term is close to 'impossible'. However, with the Opposition lacking a credible face in the state, the INC feels that it has a better chance to do well in the local polls. Secondly, Congress leaders feel that the NCP cannot put the blame of the defeat squarely on the Congress and get away with it, especially after several alleged cases of corruption against Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit Pawar.

I think, the two parties have no option but to stick together. Even in that case, they are heading for a rout in the state polls. Probably, the only chance that the allies have of forming the next government if if there is a split in the saffron alliance. Even in that scenario, getting the required numbers will be a herculean task. With 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, the Congress is still licking the wounds of its defeat. With the National Conference walking out of the UPA and several regional players cosying up to the Modi regime, the grand old party needs to keep the UPA united. As such, it cannot afford to anger its oldest existing ally. At the same time, the NCP is no position to fight the polls alone. Like the Congress, the party is battling corruption charges with its senior leader Ajit Pawar accused of being a part of the multi-crore Irrigation Scam. Moreover, the two parties are also facing internal rebellion. Revenue Minister and Malvan strongman Narayan Rane has raised the banner of revolt against Chauhan whereas NCP leader Chaggan Bhujbal is known to be contemplating a switch over to the saffron camp. Lastly, a divorce here will also split the minority votes, thereby benefiting the BJP-SS alliance further. Also, the NCP's 'grand idea' of tying up with either the BJP or the Sena to form the next regime is highly unlikely to materialize, primarily because it will find it difficult even to go past 40 seat mark.

For more posts in this series: Mahasangram (Link)