Fractured mandate in Maharashtra

Print edition : October 23, 1999

DESPITE the reverses it suffered in the State in the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress(I) has emerged as the single largest party in the Assembly in Maharashtra. Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar's image as a major national political f igure, carefully built up and marketed through his years in politics by a friendly Mumbai media, has been shattered by the Assembly results. The NCP's failure to emerge as the stronger force has left Pawar with no option but to secure a suitably packaged deal from the Congress(I). The deal is certainly going to be an unpleasant one for the former Union Minister, for he has few cards to play.

With the Shiv Sena-BJP combine lobbying energetically to become the first group to be invited to form the new government in Maharashtra, Pawar is at a crossroads. A deal with the Congress(I) would mean accepting the reality of the NCP's status as a junio r partner. Failing to do so, however, holds the even more embarrassing prospect of desertions from his new army.

Shiv Sena-BJP politicians have had little reason for delight in the Assembly results. Despite the break in the Congress(I), the right-wing alliance could gather only 125 seats, well short of a majority in a House of 288. Of these, the Shiv Sena took 69 s eats, down two from its 1995 figure, and the BJP 56, dropping from 80 in the previous Assembly. The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance's performance represented a sharp decline from 1995, when it won 151 seats. The Congress(I), for its part, saw its representation i n the Assembly decline by just five seats, from 80 to 75, despite competition for votes with the NCP, won only 58 seats.

Why did the Shiv Sena-BJP fail to replicate at the Assembly level its success in the Lok Sabha election? Some interesting facts are evident in the preliminary figures. Consider the case of the Ahmednagar Lok Sabha constituency, which the BJP won this tim e in place of the Shiv Sena which took it in 1998. In the 1995 elections, the Shiv Sena-BJP had won all the six Assembly seats that make up the Lok Sabha constituency. This time, despite its overall majority in the Lok Sabha seat, it lost the Shrigoda As sembly seat to the Congress(I) and Shevgaon to the NCP. A third segment, Ahmednagar (North), was taken by an independent. While a disunited Opposition could not wrest the Ahmednagar Lok Sabha seat, the depth of local resentment against the Shiv Sena-BJP formation expressed itself sharply at the Assembly level.

Nationalist Congress Party leaders Sharad Pawar, Chhagan Bhujbal and others at a meeting with party MLAs on October 8.-VIVEK BENDRE

Similar realities expressed themselves in the Mumbai (North-East) Lok Sabha seat, where the BJP's Kirit Somaiya defeated the Congress(I)'s Gurudas Kamat with ease. The Shiv Sena-BJP had won all six Assembly segments here in 1995, but it lost Trombay and Kurla this time around. In 1995, the Shiv Sena-BJP had triumphed in all the six Assembly segments of the Kohlapur Lok Sabha constituency, but this time lost all but one. Clear mandates to the NCP in four segments here meant the party also took the Lok Sa bha seat. By contrast, the NCP took only one Assembly segment of the Sangli Lok Sabha seat this time, while the Congress(I) captured four. Again, the Shiv Sena-BJP could not retain even one of the segments it won in 1995.

Thus, while the NCP-Congress(I) split enabled the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance to hang on to several Lok Sabha seats, public anger against its government ensured that this success could not be replicated in the Assembly elections. Assembly segments were lost e ven where the Shiv Sena-BJP managed to hang on to the Lok Sabha seat, reflecting the general decline in the right-wing alliance's vote share. Although it is too early to work out specific details, it seems probable that a united Congress challenge would have seen the Shiv Sena-BJP decimated in all but a handful of Assembly seats.

Given the fractured mandate, both the major formations in the State now have a shot at power. Broadly, the Shiv Sena-BJP's bid will depend on support from the 12 independents. The previous government of the alliance depended entirely on the backing of in dependents, 33 of whom came to power against a background of large numbers of Congress(I) dissidents fighting the official candidates. This time the situation is different. Feelers have also been sent to the newly elected Ulhasnagar MLA, Suresh 'Pappu' K alani, who allegedly has underworld links. Kalani, after his recent release from jail, set up the Native People's Party.

Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray argues that given the fact that it is a pre-poll alliance, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine should be called first to form a government. Governor P.C. Alexander's response to this argument will take a few days to come, but the nu mbers are clearly not promising in the case of the alliance. By contrast, a possible Congress(I)-NCP front could count on support from two Peasants and Workers Party MLAs, two Samajwadi Party MLAs, and probable outside support from two Communist Party of India (Marxist) MLAs. The two Janata Dal (Secular) MLAs could also follow suit. Several of the 12 independents are known to have some form of affiliation to either the Congress(I) or the NCP. All these make it possible to cobble together a government wi th a thin majority.

Maharashtra Pradesh Congress(I) Committee chief Prataprao Bhosle (centre) along with party leaders at the Raj Bhavan in Mumbai to stake their claim to form the government.-VIVEK BENDRE

But will a Congress(I)-NCP alliance come about? Although elementary political sense dictates that it ought to, several personality-related obstacles lie in the way. Suresh Kalmadi, who was among Pawar's key associates in the not-too-distant past, demande d that there should be no alliance with the NCP until its leaders apologised for their opposition to Sonia Gandhi's leadership of the Congress(I). At an October 8 press conference Pawar in turn ruled out a rapprochement with the Congress(I) as long as i t was led by Sonia Gandhi. Observers believe that these positions are at least in part polemical postures, a cover for the inevitable hard bargaining over seats and ministerial portfolios.

One possible deal some people within the NCP privately advocate is the appointment of an acceptable Congress(I) figure as Chief Minister, possibly Sushil Kumar Shinde, with representation in the Cabinet for both formations. The real danger is that if the mechanics of such an arrangement take too long to be realised, at least some elements in the NCP could head the Shiv Sena-BJP way. The principal problem with such a deal for Pawar is that it would amount to a public acknowledgement of the fact that the NCP experiment has failed. That, in turn, would only leave him the option of an embarrassing return to the Congress(I), with his authority and influence more than limited when he left the party.

History suggests that Pawar may, indeed, have to engage in precisely this kind of a retreat. The supposed centrepiece of Maharashtra politics, contrary to popular perception, has never led the Congress(I) or any other formation to an outright victory in an Assembly election. In 1978, he became Maharashtra's youngest Chief Minister by breaking the Congress(I) and forming the Progressive Democratic Front (PDF). Two years later, the Congress(I) routed the PDF, taking 186 of the 288 seats. In 1985, despite five years of scandal-ridden Congress(I) rule, which saw five Chief Ministers in as many years, it managed to win 162 seats although the entire Opposition united behind Pawar's Congress(S). Pawar returned to the Congress(I) only to lead it first to a min ority government, in 1990, and then to disaster, in 1995.

Although Pawar has a significant power base of his own, it is far from adequate to secure an unequivocal victory in the State. The creation of the NCP may have come about as an immediate consequence of the frivolous issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin ; however, the development was driven also by the Congress(I)'s lack of inner-party democracy and tactical sense. What lessons both Pawar and the Congress(I) establishment learn from the experience of the 1999 elections could shape Maharashtra politics i n the years to come. The party's one major success in the State, in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections, came after the shaping of a broad secular alliance, bringing together the Samajwadi Party and a spectrum of Republican Party of India factions. It ought now to move towards a revival of that alliance, and a healing of its own fissures.

Should the mainstream Congress(I) seek to impose a humiliating surrender on the NCP, it too shall suffer as a consequence. Whether it has the will to open itself up to allow a return of the NCP is, of course, altogether another question.

Shiv Sena-BJP leaders celebrating the combine's victory at Sena Bhavan in Mumbai.-VIVEK BENDRE

THE evening after the results were declared, Maharashtra Pradesh Cong-ress Committee (MPCC) president Prataprao Bhonsale met the Governor to present a letter staking his party's claim to form the government. The letter said the Congress(I) was the single largest party in the State and should therefore be given a chance to prove its majority.

Bhonsale told mediapersons that he expected support from the Janata Dal, the CPI(M), some independents and some members of the PWP. He was, however, non-committal about a tie-up with the NCP, saying that Pawar has "insulted the Congress". Pawar indicated that since the chances of Sonia Gandhi becoming Prime Minister had faded, he was not averse to a tie-up with the Congress(I) in the State.

Former Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde was elected the BJP's leader in the Assembly. On October 9, the Shiv Sena-BJP planned to elect an alliance leader as well as make a representation to the Governor to stake its claim to form the next government. However, these plans were shelved because that day was amavasya, (a day with moonless night), traditionally considered inauspicious. The parties decided to leave the matter of choosing the alliance leader to Bal Thackeray and Atal Behari Vajpayee .

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor