The Congress and the NCP, which broke their alliance in the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly elections, have reunited for the Lok Sabha elections. They are trying to forge a larger alliance in Maharashtra with various smaller parties. A look at what is at stake:
How important is Maharashtra to the Congress?
The Congress is putting a lot of focus in states that powered the BJP’s landslide win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Karnataka together gave the BJP more than 80% of its 282 seats. Given that Maharashtra, with 48 seats, has witnessed tensions between the BJP (22 seats in 2014) and the Shiv Sena (18), the Congress is looking at tactical alliances with regional parties to prevent a split in the anti-BJP vote. In 2014, the BJP had forged a mahagathbandhan involving smaller caste-based parties and a farmers’ political outfit; it worked.
How significant is the revival of the Congress-NCP alliance?
The reunion is out of compulsion. Though some lack of mutual trust remains — the NCP was formed a result of a split in the Congress in 1999 — both parties know they need to fight unitedly. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which the two parties had fought together, the combine got 34% of the vote. In the state polls that year, when they fought separately, the Congress ended with 18% and the NCP with 17%. The Congress’s vote share declined from the national elections. Contesting separately worked against them, because both parties appeal to identical voter segments. In North Maharashtra, Vidarbha, and Mumbai, the NCP is comparatively weak and ended up spoiling the Congress’s prospects. In Western Maharashtra and Marathwada, the NCP is stronger but the Maratha and minority vote split, helping the NDA.
What is at stake for the NCP?
It needs seats to stay relevant. For Sharad Pawar to flex his muscle at national level, NCP leaders feel they need at least 10-12 from Maharashtra. Last time, the NCP had four. If neither the BJP nor the Congress has the numbers to form the government, the NCP will hope to have enough seats for Pawar to be able to play kingmaker, and bag a good deal for the NCP.
Since the 2014 polls, the NCP has suffered the highest number of defections, followed by the Congress. Past voting trends also show that the Muslim and the Dalit vote, traditionally with the Congress, is more likely to be transferred to the NCP when they contest together.
In rural Maharashtra, leaders of both parties, NCP in particular, draw their clout from government-promoted cooperatives sector. Returning to power in Maharashtra is essential for them to keep their flock together; they will need the alliance to continue in the Assembly elections.
Which other parties are in the alliance?
The Congress and the NCP are wooing Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar, and negotiating with former NDA constituent Swabhimaani Shetkari Sanghthana, the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, the CPM, the Samajwadi Party and others.
The tie-up with Prakesh Ambedkar, who leads the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), is important because neither the Congress nor the NCP has a Dalit face. While no Dalit leader has risen from the Congress in the state after former CM Sushilkumar Shinde, the NCP hasn’t projected a face at all. For two decades, Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale helped fill this void with his association with the Congress, but he is now a Union minister in the NDA government.
The BBM’s presence, however, is limited to a few Vidarbha districts. It has no representation in the current Lok Sabha, and has just one MLA. Prakash Ambedkar last won a parliamentary election in 1999. Yet both the Congress and the NCP believe his presence will help them counter the BJP, which repeated invokes the Ambedkar legacy.
Congress leaders agree that seat-sharing talks with the BBM, which has been demanding 12, have not really been progressing. Also, the BBM has declared a tie-up with Asaduddin Owaisi’s AIMIM. So, the Congress is also focusing on other small organisations.
What are the major challenges for the alliance?
Differences continue over how the two main allies share three to four seats, which are now being resolved at the national level, with Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Pawar involved. They are yet to work out how many seats they can afford to shed from the respective quotas for the likely smaller allies. Leaders of the two parties are not keen to leave more than seven seats, in all. Also, in several districts, local Congress and NCP leaders are rivals. Infighting and the possibility of rebel candidates will hurt the alliance.
Having ceded considerable ground in Maharashtra’s urban belts, the alliance will have to depend mainly on the rural segments. Out of the 60 Assembly segments in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, the Congress and the NCP hold just four each. In Nagpur district, 10 of the 11 segments are with the BJP. In 2009, a substantial chunk of the Sena’s Marathi vote bank had swung towards Raj Thackeray’s party MNS, benefiting the Congress-NCP. The MNS sway over this Marathi vote bank has declined since, and the failure of the Congress-NCP to tap into this vote has swung most of it towards the BJP.
Can anyone play spoiler for the alliance?
The Congress is wary of an AIMIM impact on the Muslim vote bank, 14 % of the electorate. After inroads into Maharashtra through the Nanded urban body poll in 2012, AIMIM has been gradually increasing its presence. It has two MLAs, but hadn’t contested the last national election from the state. In the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and Nashik, the Congress will be hoping the MNS does not split the anti-BJP vote among the Marathi community.