With the Congress opting out of entering any national-level tie-up with its allies,the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) are leaving nothing to chance in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls and are finding ways to consolidate their positions in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. As they continue to find ways to pressurise the Congress into a seat-sharing formula favourable to them,they are sending a clear signal to the ruling party – if they dont get what they want,they will not hesitate to enter new free-for-all alignments that would make it difficult for the Congress to retain power at the Centre.
While NCP chief Sharad Pawar and SP general secretary Amar Singh have not announced any formal alliance after their talks on February 15,both have voiced singularly warm sentiments for each other,with Amar going as far as to say that the SP would support any real bid for power by Sharad Pawar after the elections and that the NCP chief would do the same for SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. The fact that the SP and NCP have little or no presence in the others stronghold is no deterrent,with a common animosity towards the BSP serving as a cementing factor in the alliance.
Even before the Congress declared it would have no national-level seat-sharing arrangement with its allies,the NCP had an elaborate strategy in place in Maharashtra. Pawar had installed Chhagan Bhujbal as the Deputy Chief Minister. With his pan-Indian identity as an OBC leader through his Mahatma Phule Samata Parishad,Bhujbal was expected to tap the 35 per cent OBC vote bank. Secondly,former deputy chief minister R R Patil (a Maratha with a clean image) was made the state president of the party. With his image and brand of rhetoric,he was to harness the 30-odd per cent Maratha vote bank. Thirdly,to rope in the economically weaker Marathas,former vice-president of the state unit Vinayak Methe is spearheading a campaign to demand 25 per cent reservations for Marathas with the contention that with reservation at 52 percent,the state has anyway crossed the stipulated 50 per cent quota ceiling. He wants Marathas to be treated as OBCs.
In order to ensure that no community is antagonised,the Congress-led coalition government in Maharashtra had appointed the R M Bapat Commission,which rejected any quota for Marathas. The series of agitations by Methe compelled the government to appoint another commission under B P Saraf to reconsider the demand. For Dalit votes,Pawar loyalist and sitting MP Ramdas Athawale who controls the largest faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI) was asked to mobilise the community in return for a safe seat. After losing his seat Pandharpur (Solapur) in delimitation Athawale wants to contest from Shirdi (Ahmednagar),which is represented by senior Congressman and former Union minister Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil. The idea was to barter it with the Congress during seat-sharing. For the Muslim vote,Pawar is holding parleys with Ulemas and has reinducted Nawab Malik as a Cabinet minister.
The NCP strategy was to leave four seats for allies (3 for RPI factions and 1 for SP) from the 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra and share the remaining equally with the Congress. Further,it wanted a national-level alliance with left and secular forces. However,the tough stand of its leaders in Maharashtra that they would not go back from the formula followed in the last polls of the Congress contesting 27 (Congress 26 and one for RPIs R S Gavai faction) and NCP 21 has made the NCP jittery.
In the past,the NCP has arm-twisted the Congress on several occasions to emerge as the more powerful ally in the state and is likely to continue along that trajectory. For example,it previously teamed up with the Shiv Sena to wrest power in the Pune Municipal Corporation and had also backed industrialist Rahul Bajaj (an Independent backed by Sena-BJP) for the Rajya Sabha,thereby defeating the Congress nominee.
The SP,of course,has no presence in Maharashtra and it would be difficult for it to open its account in the state. In the past,MLAs elected on SP tickets have been won over by the NCP. But,the SP wants to pressurise the Congress for its stakes in UP and its strategy is to exhibit its potential nuisance value in a bid to increase its bargaining power.
The NCP,too,has little presence outside Maharashtra. Its posturing and unusual meetings (like rebel Congressman Narayan Rane meeting Pawar or Bhujbal meeting Bal Thackeray after withdrawing a defamation case) indicate that the party wants to warn the Congress of its troublemaking skills.
Then there is the BSP factor. In Maharashtra,the BSP has no MLA or MP,but it is poised to storm state politics. In the last Lok Sabha elections,its presence in the fray had made the Congress-NCP alliance lose about a dozen seats,mainly in the Vidarbha region. For the SP,of course,the BSP is a formidable enemy that needs to be crushed in UP with the help of the Congress. But after the tough stand of the Congress,both the NCP and the SP are exploring new options,however unlikely they may seem.