A close race

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

In Maharashtra, which will vote for a new Assembly on October 13, the campaign has begun in right earnest and the ruling and Opposition alliances have an even chance of winning.

in Mumbai

THE October 7 electoral battle in Maharashtra is going to be a close one. It would seem that both the ruling Democratic Front (D.F.) and the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance have an even chance of winning.

Although the clash is essentially between the D.F., which consists of the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and their allies, and the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) are expected to play their roles on the fringes. The NCP has decided not to align with the BSP while the State unit of the Congress has followed the Centre's lead in keeping a distance from the S.P. Besides, an alliance with the S.P. is considered not fruitful as it no longer holds sway over the Muslim vote. Other smaller parties such as Sharad Joshi's Shetkari Sanghatana-Swatantra Bharat Party and the Pune-based Marathi Mahasangh have tied up with the Sena-BJP. The saffron combine, especially the Sena, is expected to welcome Dalit candidates with its rallying cry of `Shiv Shakti, Bhim Shakti'.

While the D.F. has chosen to start its campaign using its position as the alliance in power by issuing concessions to various segments of society, the Sena-BJP, has completed its primary round of campaigning all over the State. Seat allocation too has been agreed upon by the Sena-BJP with both parties sticking to their earlier understanding of 171 and 117 seats respectively. While details of the Congress-NCP arrangement were not available, it is felt that they will contest 73 and 60 seats respectively, that is, the same number of seats that they won in 1999. In addition, they will contest the seats they lost narrowly. The remaining seats will go to their allies, the Peasants and Workers Party and the Ambedkar and Athavale factions of the Republican Party of India (RPI).

Nominations close on September 22. The Congress-NCP is expected to take its time to announce its candidates and the final seat-sharing plan in order to avoid last-minute changes in affiliations. The move is meant to discourage a growing tendency among candidates to stand as independents. In 1995, the Sena-BJP government depended on the support of 44 independents. In 1999, many of these Independents joined the NCP. Twelve of them chose to retain their individual status and bargained for ministerial berths. Home Minister R.R. Patil has clearly told them that they will have to choose the Congress or NCP ticket.

In 1999, the Congress and the NCP won 133 of the 288 Assembly seats. This was despite the fact that they contested the elections separately. The Sena won 70 seats, the BJP 56 and independents and others 29 seats. This time, the Congress-NCP combine is expected to get at least 10 more seats with the support of the Dalit vote.

Sharad Pawar's refusal to tie up with the BSP has strengthened the ties between the NCP and the Dalit groups. Prakash Ambedkar of the RPI broke ties with the D.F. two years ago but has returned since Pawar has not allied with the BSP. The RPI sees the BSP as a threat to its existence as it feels it will be swamped by national Dalit issues, which Maharashtra Dalits say are different from those of State Dalit issues. That Dalits, especially those in Vidharbha where they form a sizable part of the population, are important to the Congress-NCP is evident from the recent decision of the Civil Aviation Ministry to name the Nagpur airport Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar airport, shooting down the proposal to name it after the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh founder, Dr Keshav Baliram Hedgewar.

That Mayawati lacks a solid base in the State was proved by the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections. The BSP could only play the role of a spoiler. Pawar understood this and was not about to give her the leg up that she requires in this round of Assembly elections. However, Mayawati must not be underestimated. In the Lok Sabha elections, in 14 out of the 48 seats the BSP contested, the party's vote share was more than the margin of victory. Ten of these seats were won by the Sena-BJP combine. Gopinath Munde in fact was believed to have assisted Mayawati in choosing her candidates. The deal was said to be a quid pro quo: Mayawati would play spoiler and in return get a reprieve in the Taj corridor probe. In the final analysis, the BSP will be of use to the Sena-BJP. The BSP is expected to contest 78 seats. It hopes to win 15 and influence the results in 50.

The D.F. government has done little to rectify the issues that it accused the previous Sena-BJP government of neglecting. In fact it has perpetuated them. At the top of the list is the huge financial debt - estimated at more than Rs.9,000 crores. The alarming monetary situation has been used by the government often to explain away its failure on several fronts, such as drinking water supply, drought relief , agricultural crisis, health care especially in the tribal areas, and distribution of regional resources.

Mumbai may prove to be the exception in the neck-and-neck race. The city gave a resounding `nay' to the Sena-BJP in the Lok Sabha elections with all but one of the six seats going to the Congress-NCP. In the 1999 Assembly elections the saffron combine had won 20 of the 34 seats in Mumbai.

Mumbai is important for several reasons. For the Sena, Mumbai is its psychological and emotional raison d'etre. To lose it is to lose face. For the BJP it is the economic powerhouse that sustains the party's coffers. In fact, the victory in Mumbai was what tilted the balance in favour of the Sena-BJP when it first snatched the reins from the Congress in 1995 (the combine won all but one of the 34 Mumbai seats). This time the Congress-NCP is hopeful of winning 24 Mumbai seats. Eager to stay in the lead it gained in the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress-NCP has used its last days in government to woo the Mumbai voter intensely. At the top of the list is a real estate developer's dream - the 100 acres (40 hectares) of land that once housed a thriving textile industry. A contentious matter since it involves socio-economic and cultural issues, the government has always been cautious when it came to policy decisions regarding mill lands. A couple of weeks before the election dates were announced, the D.F. government gave the green signal to allow the National Textile Mills to develop about 80 acres (32 ha) with private participation.

Quick clearance was also given to the Sahara Group to build a film city on 150 acres (60 ha). The project has become controversial, as the Sahara project will come up adjacent to the existing government-owned film city.

In a blatant effort to buy votes, the D.F. government has proposed to bring forward the cut-off date to regularise slum encroachments. The earlier date was December 31, 1995. The new proposal calls for the date to be brought forward by five years. The proposal has been challenged by a citizen's group, but if upheld it could fetch the Congress an additional four lakh votes.

For the middle class voter and the landlord, the government slashed property tax on dilapidated buildings by 80 per cent to encourage reconstruction and help solve the housing crisis in the city. The insidious aspect of the plan is its political agenda. The reduction in the property tax will reduce the revenue received by the Sena-controlled municipal corporation.

Sops have also been given out to the rest of the State. The most obviously political of these is the bail-out plan for 50 loss-making cooperative sugar factories, the majority of which are owned by NCP leaders. The announcement of free power to farmers is another contentious issue but one that no party is willing to challenge publicly at this moment. About 23 lakh farmers stand to benefit from the proposal but the State will have to find some means of paying the bill of Rs.1,500 crores that its generosity will incur.

The proposal to write off about Rs.100 crores as interest on loans taken by farmers was something of a coup by the D.F. government. But its hopes of attracting farmers' votes were dashed when the Chief Electoral Officer stayed the proposal. Even though the decision to implement the waiver had been made prior to the announcement of the election dates, the resolution to implement it was adopted after the announcement. This constituted a violation of the election code. The other proposal designed to lure rural voters was a hike in the wages of village constables. The BJP has objected to this as being violative of the code of conduct.

Communalism , not a traditional battleground in Maharashtra politics, is becoming more pervasive. A series of recent incidents confirm this. Days after the election dates were announced bombs were hurled by miscreants during the Friday afternoon prayers in mosques at Jalna and Parbhani, towns that have a recent history of rioting. While police reports and eyewitnesses say that the bombs were hurled from outside, an attempt at playing communal politics was made when rumours were spread that the bombs exploded inside the mosques.

In an attempt that might consolidate its existing vote base but antagonise undecided voters, the Sena has said that the municipal corporation's decision to make singing of Vande Mataram a must in all municipal schools will be upheld. Raza Academy, a Muslim organisation, opposed the decision saying a line in the song calls for the land to be worshipped and that this went against Muslim religious teaching.

The Savarkar issue has a special potency in Maharashtra and has been simmering for decades. It caused much heartburning for the Congress-NCP when Union Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar reportedly ordered the removal of the plaque of Savarkar from the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. The saffron parties are capitalising on the situation fully aware of the quandary that the Congress-NCP is in on the matter.

While being loath to let the Sena-BJP profit from an issue close to Maharashtra's heart, the Congress-NCP has so far refrained from being drawn into the controversy. In an attempt to lessen his political losses, the Chief Minister stated: "We consider Savarkar as a great patriot."

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