Win by default

Published : Nov 20, 2009 00:00 IST

in Mumbai

AS Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan begins a new term in office, one cannot help but contradict his claim that his government returned to power on account of its achievements in the past year. That the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine managed a victory by default is something even staunch party supporters will find difficult to dispute. The fact is that the victory was thanks to a weak and divided Opposition.

The Congress-NCP coalition managed a hat-trick despite a strong anti-incumbency sentiment brought on by a poor economy, staggering rise in food prices, and absence of emphasis on strengthening security, a drought-like situation, and various problems in the agricultural sector including suicide by farmers.

Its main rival, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was left far behind; the latter conceded defeat even before the counting of votes ended. The final results showed the Congress had come first with 82 seats, followed by the NCP with 62 seats. The BJP and the Shiv Sena could manage only 46 and 44 seats respectively.

Noticeable features of the elections were the low-key campaign compared with the robust electioneering that preceded earlier elections, and the sidelining of major issues. It was as if the public and the politicians were separate elements and the former was just expected to be onlookers. Unmindful of the people they were to represent, politicians haggled over seats and fitted the right candidate into the right constituency.

This time around too, dynastic politics, cronyism and dissidence were on open display. Some secure seats were lost to parties as a result of the free-for-all that followed ticket allocation. One significant example is that of four-time BJP legislator Dr Vinay Natu, who had to forgo his Guhagar seat in the Konkan region. The BJP had agreed to part with the seat in order to get two more seats allocated to it as part of its seat-sharing deal (169-119) with the Shiv Sena. Natu was forced to give it to Sena man and Leader of the Opposition Ramdas Kadam, whose Khed seat was amalgamated into Guhagar during delimitation.

The decision caused an uproar in the region, especially from Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) supporters. Before Natu, his father Shridhar Natu of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh had held the seat since 1972. The BJP, however, extracted the Ghatkopar West seat in north Mumbai from the Sena for the late BJP leader Pramod Mahajans daughter Poonam. Natu and his supporters refused to support Kadam, and the Guhagar seat slipped away from the saffron combine to the NCP. In Ghatkopar, Poonam Mahajan, a political novice, lost to Raj Thackerays Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).

The issue also exposed the old feud between the BJPs State chief Nitin Gadkari and national secretary Gopinath Munde. Gadkari wanted Natu to retain the seat, whereas Munde wanted to make the sacrifice in exchange for the party ticket for Poonam, his niece. The latter also ensured that his daughter, Pankaja Palve, won the ticket for Parli in his home district of Beed. Another relative of his was given a seat in a neighbouring district.

The most interesting case study, however, in the State elections is that of Union Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. He has once again emerged unscathed and is riding a wave. When he was unceremoniously removed from chief ministership last year after terrorists attacked Mumbai, some observers said it was the end of his career. Others, who had seen him bounce back from sticky situations earlier, predicted he would do so again. Vilasrao is now ensconced in Delhi as a Rajya Sabha member. He worked aggressively to destabilise the NCP and quell the influence of his arch enemy and NCP chief Sharad Pawar. His own nest is safe. His son, Amit, who had managed his campaigns earlier, contested from Latur City and won.

Amit Deshmukh is a symbol of Maharashtras new shift towards dynastic politics. The others are Rajendrasingh Shekhawat, son of President Pratibha Patil, who won on the Congress ticket from Amravati; Union Minister Sushil Kumar Shindes daughter Praniti, who won from Solapur City Central; Pankaja Palve, Mundes daughter; and the Senas Om Raje Nimbalkar, son of murdered Congress leader Pawan Raje Nimbalkar.

The Maharashtra Assembly will have two father-son duos representing the NCP Chhagan Bhujbal and Pankaj Bhujbal, and Ganesh Naik and Sandeep Naik. Pankaj, who won from Nandgaon, and Sandeep, who won from Airoli, are both first-time MLAs, and they fought from constituencies adjacent to their parents. Interestingly, Chhagan Bhujbal and Ganesh Naik started their political careers in the Shiv Sena.

All offspring were not so lucky. Ashish Deshmukh, son of former Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee chief Ranjeet Deshmukh; Shekhar Shende, son of outgoing Deputy Speaker Pramod Shende; and Rahul Pugalia, son of Naresh Pugalia, the former MP from Chandrapur, all lost the elections.

Among the prominent losers were 12 State Ministers. Former Textile Minister Satish Chaturvedi, Textile Minister in the outgoing government Anees Ahmad, Food and Civil Supplies Minister Ramesh Bang, and former Minister of State Dharamrao Baba Atram were among the big losers from Vidarbha. Other Ministers and former Ministers who were among the losers are Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, Digvijay Khanvilkar, Dr Sunil Deshmukh, Surupsinh Naik, Siddharam Mhetre, Ranajagjitsinh Patil, Shobha Bacchav and Dr Nitin Raut. In Ulhasnagar, sitting MLA Pappu Kalani, a former detenu under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, was defeated by the BJPs Uttamchand Ailani. The gangster Arun Gawli, who contested from prison, also lost.

The worst-affected party was Bal Thackerays Shiv Sena. Its seats dropped from 62 in 2004 to 44 this time. The main reason for this was the rise of the MNS. Headed by Bal Thackerays nephew Raj Thackeray, the MNS won 13 seats in its maiden attempt to the Assembly. Senas current chief and Bal Thackerays son Uddhav Thackerays lack of touch with the grass roots also reportedly affected his partys performance. A shakha (unit) leader in South Mumbai remarked, If Uddhavji had concentrated on grassroots work, we would have retained our lead. It is good he is trying corporate-style management techniques in the party, but the fact is that the cadre want their leader to have more josh [being street-savvy] and mingle with them.

While Uddhavs leadership may not be openly questioned, he has definitely lost ground to his more experienced cousin. The MNS won six of Mumbais 36 seats, and the party helped the Congress-NCP bag 20 seats in the city. The three-year-old MNS now has the largest number of seats in Mumbai after the Congress and the NCP.

The Election Commission statistics showed that 23 per cent of Mumbais votes went to the MNS. The party spoilt the chances of the Sena in more than a dozen seats the most notable being Mahim, a Sena stronghold, where MNS candidate Nitin Sardesai beat Sena candidate Adesh Bandekar as well as Sena rebel-turned-Congress candidate Sada Sarvankar. The Senas mistake was in taking this seat away from Sarvankar, who had held it. Bandekar, a novice in politics, was chosen because he is a television personality.

The MNS seems to have expanded its support base in the six months after the Lok Sabha elections. The difference was most visible in Pune where the party got 1.5 lakh votes more than it polled in the Lok Sabha elections. This is an indicator that the MNS may no longer be just a spoiler; it has found its political niche. In Kasba Peth constituency in Pune, a BJP stronghold, BJP candidate Girish Bapat faced a stiff fight from the MNS candidate. Bapat, who had held the seat for three terms, finally won by a margin of just 8,162 votes.

The results are bound to affect the Senas partnership with the BJP. After one term in power, from 1995 to 2000, the alliance has not had a fruitful political relationship. And now the Sena, with a lower seat tally than the BJP, has had to relinquish the Leader of the Opposition post.

The BJP, too, does not seem to have recovered from the loss of Pramod Mahajan. Neither Munde nor Gadkari seems capable of providing inspirational leadership. They are known for squabbling over party policies. The turmoil in the party at the Centre has also left its mark on the State unit.

The latest election has exposed a new phase in Maharashtra politics, one in which strategic but fluid partnerships, coalition governments and creation of dynasties are more important than issues.

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