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The biggest political story from Maharashtra in 2017 came towards the end. On December 12, Sharad Pawar led a joint protest rally of the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and other smaller opposition parties in Nagpur in the presence of the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Ghulam Nabi Azad.
During his address, Pawar was sharply critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while he heaped praises on Congress President Rahul Gandhi and the former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Later, Singh reciprocated, terming Pawar as the “most creative agriculture minister” he had ever seen.
The message behind the grandstanding from both the parties was loud and clear. The former allies were willing to come back together. The joint rally in Nagpur was the strongest signal of a possible rapprochement between the Congress and the NCP, which had bitterly parted ways ahead of the Assembly poll in 2014 after coexisting in power for 15 years.
The year ahead will reveal whether the leaders from the two parties can bury the differences of the past and join hands to bolster the opposition against the BJP, said political observers. Incidentally, for Pawar’s NCP, the move also signals a major course correction. The NCP, which has often bailed out the BJP in crucial moments in the past three years, is now seemingly desperate to shed the image that it has a “tacit understanding” with Modi’s party. Also, with the Congress now seeming to be well in the saddle, holding the reins of the Opposition, the NCP feels it’s best bet is to align with the Congress to take on the BJP.
While some Congress leaders in the state still remain wary of the “unpredictability” of Pawar’s brand of politics, most in the party feel that propping up a broad-based alliance among all opposition parties could turn out to be the thorn in the flesh for the Maharashtra BJP in the 2019 polls.
“A multi-cornered contest will work in the BJP’s favour. A united opposition can upset their equations,” said a former Congress minister while recounting the Congress’s efforts at getting even, other smaller parties, including the Samajwadi Party, the Peasants and Workers Party, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and Jogendra Kavade-led faction of the Republican Party of India on a common platform. “The whole idea is to stop the division of secular votes,” said Congress leader Sachin Sawant. NCP’s Nawab Mallik echoed Sawant.
Interestingly, Pawar has also opened a line of communication with the BJP’s warring ally, the Shiv Sena. “Our priority is to tie-up with the Congress. But if that does not work out, we will explore the possibility of a regional alliance with the Shiv Sena,” a former NCP minister said.
In the past, whenever the opposition has tried to corner the Fadnavis government united, the chief minister has effectively used the threat of acting against allegations of corruption against the ministers of the Congress-NCP regime to take the sting out of the offensive.
The year ends on a positive note for the Congress. A near clean sweep in the Nanded civic poll in October and a High Court reprieve for Ashok Chavan, the party’s tallest leader in Maharashtra, has bolstered its rank and file as it welcomes 2018.
Also, while still reeling from the stunning loss in the Assembly polls and the electoral setbacks in the subsequent local body polls, the Congress was successful in wresting the trend towards the year end. Besides Nanded, it also won civic elections in Bhiwandi, Malegaon, and Parbhani, signalling at a consolidation in the party’s Muslim vote bank. The party also recorded a much-improved showing in the gram panchayat poll, riding on the growing unrest against the government over the implementation of the farm loan waiver. While the Congress’s campaign against demonetisation last December did not work, the one against the lacunae in the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime was effective. The party’s remodelled communication strategy was more proactive.
On a personal level, 2017 proved to be a watershed year for Ashok Chavan, who has scripted a famous comeback after being isolated over the Adarsh Housing Society controversy, on the back of some impressive election wins in Nanded, his home turf. The High Court order earlier this month, setting aside Governor Ch Vidyasagar Rao’s sanction to prosecute Chavan in the Adarsh case capped a “good year” for him.
The year did not end all that well for his bete-noire Narayan Rane, who quit the Congress in September revolting against Chavan’s leadership. Rane’s much-talked about induction in the Fadnavis cabinet has been delayed indefinitely.
Pawar,on the other hand, had to himself take to the streets for his party’s revival. While the NCP has been projecting the leadership of Supriya Sule, Pawar’s daughter, and Ajit Pawar, his nephew, it hasn’t found the same resonance among party workers as Pawar’s leadership.