The Maharashtra Conundrum
Befuddles both the ruling dispensation and the Opposition
It might be hard to believe, but the fact is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have been perplexed by the Maharashtra riddle. Despite engineering splits in the Shiv Sena and the NCP, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) does not look to be on a sound footing in the premier state.
Pre-poll surveys and reports reaching New Delhi suggest that Maharashtra is going to be a tricky state for the ruling BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as well as the Opposition's INDIA coalition.
The NDA was expecting a clean sweep following the splits, but strangely this has not demoralised the Opposition. The attendance of a large number of people at the meetings of Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray are just one yardstick.
The resource-rich BJP is ahead of its opponents, but will it retain its number of seats in the elections ahead of this premier state along with the new allies, is a crucial question. The BJP along with its erstwhile ally the undivided Shiv Sena were in a dominant position in the Lok Sabha since 2014 securing more than 40 seats out of 48.
An unsure BJP engineered a split in the NCP after realising that Eknath Shinde's Shiv Sena was not enough to get numbers and ensure a third term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
'Old' Sharad Pawar and 'soft’ and mild-mannered Uddhav Thackeray are rebuilding their organisations, bringing new faces to their parties. The message is loud and clear. They are down but not out. If the two leaders and the Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge, who is from neighbouring Karnataka and speaks Marathi well, comb the state, then the political scenario could be different.
Despite the shrill Congress-mukt Bharat, the Congress' support base in the state has not been damaged completely . It won the assembly by election and the legislative council polls after Eknath Shinde became the chief minister. But the grand old party lacks a face in the state.
Besides, two ambitious leaders, Prakash Ambedkar and Raj Thackeray, are in a fix. They cannot afford to become friendly with the BJP directly or indirectly as it could work against them in the state assembly polls next year. And the BJP too is not in a position to meet their demand for the number of seats .Currently, they are neither with the NDA nor with the INDIA.
The Telangana-based Bharat Rashtra Samithi of K. Chandrashekhar Rao is seeking to fish in troubled waters and has started making electoral investments in the state. If he retains power in Telangana which will have the Assembly polls before the Lok Sabha elections, then he could be a spoiler. Sharad Pawar has already predicted that the BRS would be a B team of the BJP in Maharashtra.
While Ajit Pawar's faction of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in the NDA and the Maharashtra government has already made Eknath Shinde's Shiv Sena and a faction in the BJP, nervous, to say it mildly, Ajit Pawar, the deputy chief minister, is known to be brash.
He is seeking to dominate Chief Minister Eknath Shinde. He, on his own, holds meetings with officers, supervising the overall functioning of the government. He has the full backing of Narendra Modi and the Union Home Minister Amit Shah.
His supporters in his NCP faction say, "Ajitdada would be installed as the Chief Minister before the Lok Sabha polls. Eknath Shinde will get disqualified by the state Assembly Speaker who is dealing with the disqualification petitions under the watch of the Supreme Court.”
Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is unlikely to be elevated, as the BJP high command wants a strong Maratha leader who has command over the cooperative sector. And it sees such qualities in Ajit Pawar. Fadnavis is a Brahmin which is a politically featherweight caste in the Maratha-dominated Maharashtra.
Therefore, Ajit Pawar's entry could make the Eknath Shinde faction and a BJP faction passive in the upcoming electoral battle. Former BJP Maharashtra chief and current cabinet minister in the state Chandrakant Patil is said to have complained to the chief minister against Ajit Pawar for his growing interference. Patil is an MLA from Pune city, the key district is the home turf of Ajit.
While Uddhav Thackeray is reviewing the Lok Sabha constituency-wise situation, Sharad Pawar drew large gatherings to his meetings at Yeola in Nashik district, Beed and Kolhapur. He identified candidates against the NCP rebels and the current ministers Chhagan Bhujbal, Dhananjay Mundhe and Hasan Mushrif.
Although the Congress leaders have yet to be seen active on the ground, its performance would improve in the Vidarbha region due to the fighting in the BJP and because of the alliance outside Vidarbha.
The BJP has well-oiled election machinery and a strong organisational network but it lacks a pan-Maharashtra face. Besides, the BJP is unsure of how the Modi factor will work in the election. This is because Maharashtra has seen more Hindutva hardliners than Modi and dislikes Gujarat's brand of Hindutva.
Significantly, the BJP's attempts to win over Marathas can send out a wrong signal to the OBCs. The BJP is grudgingly realising that it is a messy picture in Maharashtra which could get messier as the polls near.