Shaky alliances

Print edition : October 09, 2009

(From left) Union Minister for Heavy Industries Vilasrao Deshmukh, State Congress president Manikrao Thackeray and Chief Minister Ashok Chavan at a pre-poll alliance meeting with NCP leaders, in Mumbai on September 15.-PTI (From left) Union Minister for Heavy Industries Vilasrao Deshmukh, State Congress president Manikrao Thackeray and Chief Minister Ashok Chavan at a pre-poll alliance meeting with NCP leaders, in Mumbai on September 15.

THE October 13 Assembly elections portend a make-or-break scenario for parties and alliances in Maharashtra. This is especially true of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Their uneasy partnership is reflective of the state of Maharashtras politics in general.

The run-up to the elections has been a crucial period for the NCP. The party has always expressed its discontent at being treated as the lesser partner. After the creation of the NCP in 1999, it fought the Assembly elections that followed on its own and won 54 seats. The Congress and the NCP then joined hands to form the Democratic Front, which has ruled Maharashtra ever since. In the 2004 Assembly polls, the NCP emerged as the single largest party with 71 seats. It also gained a hold on the Central government by securing prime portfolios such as Agriculture and Civil Aviation.

But the NCP and the Congress have not really settled into a cohesive relationship even after two terms in power. The NCP continues to play second fiddle to its ally in the State despite its claim that it has a superior electoral base. NCP leader and State Water Resources Minister Ajit Pawar reiterated that rural Maharashtra was the partys greatest asset and that it had nurtured its constituencies conscientiously over the past five years. The Minister claimed that had consolidated the NCPs position.

In the run-up to every round of elections, it has become almost routine for both partners to say initially that they will fight the elections alone. This time too, it has been no different.

The NCP, which put up candidates from 124 constituencies in 2004, wanted the same number of seats this time. But it had to be satisfied with 114 seats, while the Congress decided to fight the remaining 174 seats to the 288-member Assembly. Acrimonious parleys preceded the seat-sharing agreement. A further fine-tuning in New Delhi may result in some minor changes in the seat-sharing pact, according to a Congressman.

Putting on a brave face, the NCP blamed the fall in the number of seats it would contest on the delimitation of constituencies. But it is more likely that the Congress had its way in the seat allotment, given the NCPs dismal performance in the recent Lok Sabha elections. The Congress contested 25 of the 48 seats and won 17 while the NCP contested 21 but won only eight.

Former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh has for long been urging the Congress high command to shed the NCP, and the parliamentary election results have given it the right excuse to do so. So strong is the antagonism between the two parties that their representatives met only three days before the final date for nominations. The final arrangement on seats was reached only after four meetings.

A decade of existence has not given the NCP any special identity. It has not grown as a party either in numbers or in national profile. It retains its Maratha hegemony. It is still identified with Sharad Pawar. There is no solid second-rung of leadership. It continues to be viewed as a breakaway group rather than as a separate party, and the general impression is that it would at any point rejoin the parent party. Voters view the two parties as one. Pawar also seems to have taken a softer stance on the issue of Sonia Gandhis foreign origins. Those who joined the NCP did so because they found it convenient to be attached to Pawars coat-tails and because a newly created party always offers more to its followers.

Yet, NCP cadre have always been hesitant about the split. Even Pawar has been unable to withstand the pressure of staying away from the Congress. In fact, the two parties post-poll alliance 10 years ago was a result of the realisation that they needed each other. Though they claimed that the alliance was necessary to keep the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at bay, the truth was that both parties were dependent on each other for survival.

Shiv Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray, in front of a picture of his father and Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.-VIVEK BENDRE

The tensions between the Congress and the NCP can only benefit the Shiv Sena and the BJP, which have agreed to maintain their earlier seat-sharing ratio of 171-117. In its two decades as a team, the saffron partnership has been comparatively stable. However, this time around the turmoil in the BJP at the Centre has shaken the Maharashtra unit, too, even though State BJP president Nitin Gadkari denies it.

Relations between the Shiv Sena and the BJP became strained after the defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. The crisis in Delhi following the publication of Jaswant Singhs book also triggered fears that the instability in the BJP will affect the Senas chances in the Assembly polls. Ever since L.K. Advanis remark about Jinnahs secularism, the Sena has been wary of the BJP. It believes that the BJPs doubletalk on Hindutva is damaging the alliance. A source in the Sena said: Saheb [Bal Thackeray] has always held fast to Hindutva. And he believed that the BJP did too, otherwise he would not have agreed to a partnership. Now they are talking this way and that way. It is confusing the voters. First Advani said Jinnah was secular; now Jaswant Singh is praising him. What is the real position? We are all confused.

The BJP said that the loss of the six Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai was the outcome of the conflict between Uddhav Thackeray and Raj Thackeray, Bal Thackerays son and nephew respectively. Hitting back, the Sena blamed the BJP for the alliances loss in the parliamentary elections. In particular, it blamed the arrogant style of campaigning of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. As a star campaigner for the BJP, Modi held rallies in 20 constituencies in the State but delivered only in three. A Sena source said: Modi campaigned for the BJP and for himself. He projected himself as the star of economic development and made out as if Maharashtrians were useless at business.

However, given the open discord between the Congress and the NCP as well as the recent victory of the BJP in the Gujarat Assembly byelections, where it won five out of seven seats, the Maharashtra unit of the BJP may well rally around and hold its own.

The dark horse on the electoral scene is Raj Thackerays Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). Though the party won no seats in the general elections, it came a respectable second or third runner-up in many. The MNS campaign was solely aimed at destabilising Sena candidates and this inadvertently helped the Congress-NCP candidates. The BJP plans to turn this around to its advantage by reminding voters that voting for the MNS in the Assembly elections would be like casting a vote for the Congress-NCP.

As far as issues are concerned, this election like the ones before it should centre on drought, irrigation, price rise, terrorism and security, urban housing, and infrastructure. But, for the time being, the needs of the people and issues of governance have been relegated to the background as the two alliances concentrate more on political wrangling.

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