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Two angry young men of Maharashtra politics, Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar and the late Bal Thackeray’s nephew Raj Thackeray, will decide the fate of two political combinations — led by the Congress-NCP and the BJP-Shiv Sena, respectively.
It is no coincidence that both fired their first salvos almost simultaneously against the Congress and the BJP, respectively. A day after Ajit Pawar threatened the Congress with walking out of the alliance in the state, Raj Thackeray questioned Narendra Modi’s political wisdom in latching on to the Gujarat chief minister’s post even after being selected as the prime ministerial candidate. Their stands have caught both national parties off-guard.
Though Ajit and Raj have timed their criticism of the Congress and the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha election, what makes it more interesting is that they have very little interest in national politics. Both Ajit and Raj have their eyes firmly set on the Maharashtra assembly election, scheduled just after the Lok Sabha polls.
Raj’s veiled attack on Modi has rattled the saffron camp in the state. The BJP has every reason to be worried. Coming in the wake of the Aam Adami Party’s promised foray into the state’s politics, the BJP cannot ignore the threat posed by Raj. In 2009, the BJP-Sena lost as many as over a dozen Lok Sabha seats, thanks to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the newly formed outfit led by Raj. The MNS lost all seats, but in the process, ensured the defeat of Sena-BJP candidates, as its candidates mopped up an average one lakh votes in all major constituencies it contested.
The election ahead promises an action replay, and the BJP has itself to blame for the mess. It was the BJP that was overtly and covertly courting Raj’s MNS since the Shiv Sena started showing early signs of ageing. The death of Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray last year, brought the BJP closer to Raj. Many a time since, BJP leaders, including former party president Nitin Gadkari, publicly expressed their desire to have Raj in the saffron combine. Gopinath Munde went a step further when he vowed to have Raj on board.
But the politically astute Raj neither ignored the BJP’s overtures nor gave his nod to the new alliance. For his part, he opened an independent channel with Narendra Modi. Such was the bonhomie between the two that Raj was accorded the status of a “state guest” when he visited Gujarat last year. After the much publicised visit, Raj was gaga about Modi and his development plank. He was later even invited to Gandhinagar for Modi’s swearing-in. It fooled the BJP into believing that it had won a new alliance member.
But that was not to be. While Raj was lured by the BJP, he had his own agenda. That was outnumbering the Shiv Sena in state politics. Raj has never had an ambition to make it to the Lok Sabha. His immediate goal is to occupy the opposition’s space single-handedly in the 2014 assembly election. For him, the ensuing Lok Sabha round was a tool to garner enough strength for the bigger battle ahead. In lieu of support, Raj wanted the BJP — and especially Modi — to offer him a larger role vis-à-vis his cousin Uddhav Thackeray. A major chunk of the BJP was — and is, in fact — in favour of the more maverick of the Thackerays. Not the insipid Uddhav and a weaker Shiv Sena. The BJP, on the other hand, started giving out mixed signals. It antagonised Uddhav by not inviting him to share the dais with Modi in Mumbai, but at the same time it didn’t embrace Raj either. It, expectedly, has resulted in Raj damning Modi and the BJP’s style of politics.
This certainly multiplies the BJP’s woes. By not winning over Raj, it has opened one more front in its Lok Sabha battle. It also has to contend with the new kid on the block, AAP, that has promised to contest all 48 seats in the state. The point to be noted is that more than half of the total seats in Maharashtra are in cities, where the AAP and the MNS promise a close battle.
The situation in the other camp — the Congress and NCP — is similar. Ajit Pawar, the ambitious and aggressive nephew of Sharad Pawar, is seen openly trying to undermine the Congress’s authority in the coming Lok Sabha polls. Like Raj, he too wants to be in the driver’s seat during the assembly election. The NCP leader also has hardly any interest in the Lok Sabha outcome. Though it is part of the ruling alliance, the NCP has not wasted a single opportunity to undermine the Congress, which is more or less rudderless in Maharashtra. Tainted by the Adarsh scam, the Congress was further weakened by the untimely exit of Vilasrao Deshmukh.
In this situation, the Congress leadership is aware that, but for the clean reputation and moral authority of incumbent CM Prithviraj Chavan, it hardly has anything to offer voters. But that too was weakened after Rahul Gandhi’s recent Adarsh outburst. Rahul’s tantrums were so ill-timed that it gave the Pawars an opportunity to preach to Prithviraj on political morality.
In the larger scheme of things for the Congress and the BJP, the NCP and the MNS are insignificant. The NCP has just eight MPs against the Congress’s 17 from Maharashtra, while the MNS has none. But their minuscule strength notwithstanding, both regional outfits are set to challenge their national partners. Who says the tail can’t wag the dog?
The writer is editor, ‘Loksatta’ email@example.com