September 21, 2014



Of the four states that go to the poll this year, the biggest is the western state of Maharashtra. After being in power for the last 15 years, the results of the Lok Sabha have come as a jolt to the ruling combine. Together the Congress and its ally, the NCP were literally demolished as they faced a strong opposition - the 'Mahayuti' that the saffron allies, the Shiv Sena and the BJP had stitched together. Even the presence of Raj Thackeray's MNS could not benefit the UPA like they did in 2009 when the anti-incumbency votes were split into the two fractions of the Sena. While many would have expected the NDA to sweep Maharashtra, the recent poll setbacks to the saffron outfit in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Karnataka, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradsh (Link) seems to have put a serious question before the BJP - can it replicate its superlative performance even in the state assembly polls in winter, especially in Mumbai where it has been warming the Opposition benches since ages. The Congress is trying to get over its disastrous defeat; retaining Maharashtra could signal the beginning of a long pending revival. Meanwhile, state politics is incomplete without considering the three regional parties. Unlike the heartland, the two national parties are not the main players here. Let us see what parameters will impact the outcome of the Maharashtra state assembly polls in 2014.

As they say, united we win and divided we fall. The results of the October elections could simply boil down to the fact that which coalition is able to sustain itself in spite of all the drama over the seat sharing talks. Both the Congress-NCP as well as the Sena-BJP know very well that it is in their best interest to make sure that their respective partnerships survive. However, less than a month before voting, the UPA and the NDA as we know them today, are witnessing media war over seat sharing arrangements. The saffron alliance which stretches back to 25 years is looking extremely shaking; the BJP, high on its earth-shattering performance in the General Polls has rejected the 119-178 formula brokered by Bal Thackeray and Pramod Mahajan in the early 90s. While the state BJP wants to fight on 130 seats, the Sena has refused to give anything more than 125. Besides, Uddhav Thackeray's portrayal as the alliance's CM candidate by his outfit has not been taken kindly by the BJP. On the other hand, the NCP has upped the ante; Pawar's party wants to be an equal player in the coalition. After winning twice as many parliamentary seats as the INC in May, the regional parties wants to have a relook at the earlier formula. Meanwhile, the plea seems to have fallen on deaf years as the Congress has refused to back down from its stand. With cracks developing in the two fronts, it remains to be seen if the allies can bury their differences and patch up. Failing that, it could be a five cornered contest for Maharashtra - BJP vs SS vs Congress vs NCP vs MNS. In fact, what could be more interesting is the realignment of forces; the NCP could tie up with either the BJP or even the Shiv Sena; the BJP could also join hands with the MNS and so on.

As if the tussle over the seat sharing was not enough, the Congress and the NCP are fighting anti-incumbency stretching over a period of 15 long years. The two parties came together after the saffron allies were beaten in the 1999 state polls and ever since have been in power in Mumbai. They were also a part of the Manmohan government for two consecutive terms. The results of the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls has certainly sent shock waves to the incumbent regime. The two partners could only get six seats even as the mega coalition of the BJP bagged the remaining 42. There are speculations that the results may be repeated yet again later this year. The UPA somehow managed to stay afloat in 2009 thanks to Raj Thackeray's MNS splitting the anti-establishment votes. After drawing a blank in the May elections, the MNS will find it difficult to cut into the traditional Sena votes. In the aftermath of the Lok Sabha defeat, there were calls to sack the serving CM Chauhan. However, he managed to stay afloat with the blessings of the High Command. On their part, the ruling combine is busying showcasing the development projects that were completed during its tenure including the Mumbai-Worli Sealink, the Mumbai Monorail, the Mumbai Metro and so on. However, whether the voters buy this argument or not is something that will be clear only on the voting day - October 15.

Remember the Adarsh Housing Society Scam. Yes, the same scandal wherein flats in Mumbai's posh Colaba area which were to be allocated for the widows of Kargil martyrs were grabbed by top several politicians. It was the same episode that saw the sacking of the then CM Ashok Chavan. Corruption is for sure, going to be one of the biggest issues in the upcoming state elections. In fact, three other former CMs, all belonging to the Congress seem to have been in the list of beneficiaries including Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushilkumar Shinde and Shivajirao Patil Nilangekar. This has become a big embarrassment for the INC. On the other hand, the NCP finds itself in trouble in the multi-crore Irrigation Scam. Deputy CM Ajit Da who was the state irrigation minister for two terms is accused of siphoning off crores of rupees. Besides, his irresponsible statements like the one he made in April last year when he asked if he should urinate into dams to fill water has been panned both by the Opposition and the public.

While corruption has become synonymous with the Congress, the ghost of Babri Masjid and the Godhra riots have kept haunting the BJP for long. Add to it the Sena whose founder Balasaheb had openly asked for voted in the name of religion. 'Communalism' is one of the biggest talking points before that state polls. The force feeding of a Muslim employee in the Maharashtra Bhavan by Sena MPs during the time of Ramazan is going to be raked up by the Congress and the NCP. The ruling parties on their part have already given 5 percent reservation for the minority community apart from 16 percent reservation for Marathas. Similarly, one can also expect the two Senas to raise the 'Marathi Manoos' or the 'Sons of the Soil' argument.  Anti-northern Indian stirs and protests may become common in the coming days.

For long, there have been demands for a separate state of Vidarbha to be carved out of eastern Maharashtra. With the creation of Telangana, this clamour has only increased. In this election season, you should not be surprised if these demands only grow stronger. On this issue, even allies can have a difference of opinion. For long, the Sena has vehemently opposed any kind of division; on the other hand, the BJP has always favored smaller states. Another related topic is the future of Belgaum. Presently in northern Karnataka, there is a significant section of the population here that feels that they should be a part of the Marathi state. However, this claim has been rejected by Karnataka on repeated occasions.

Finally, let us have a look at the leaders who could hold the key as to which party or alliance does well. Sharad Pawar is perhaps, the tallest leader in the state today. However, there is little doubt that his political fortunes, like that of his party are on the decline. After the NCP was routed in most of its strongholds, it is important for the Maratha strongman and his outfit to do well in the October polls. He has taken a big gamble by ditching the Congress and it remains to be seen if it pays off. His nephew Ajit Pawar has made clear his chief ministerial ambitions in a recent interview. With Narayan Rane being appointed as the head of the party's electoral campaign, incumbent CM Prithviraj Chavan has his task cut out. While he has to make sure that the INC does well, he also has to hope that his followers win more seats than those in the Rane camp. Meanwhile, Ashok Chavan can be the dark horse in the CM's race. However, giving the top post to him could backfire on the Congress thanks to the stigma of the Adarsh Scam. In the saffron alliance, Uddhav Thackeray has a point to prove; he can put to rest all the questions over his leadership if he can lead the Sena to an impressive tally. Breaking his family tradition, the Sena pramukh has made it clear that he wants to occupy the CM's post. Finally, for the BJP, the untimely death of Gopinath Munde has jeopardized their plans. Other leaders including Nitin Gadkari lack popular support outside their respective regions.

For more posts in this series: Mahasangram (Link)