The BJP stepping up its campaign against Sharad Pawar and his Nationalist Congress Party is being seen as a tactical move by the saffron party to enthuse its cadres to win 45 out of 48 seats in Maharashtra — as stated by party president Amit Shah during a recent visit.
One-fourth of these 48 seats are in Western Maharashtra. In 2014, all the four seats that the NCP won were from here. Five years later, the BJP’s aggressive posturing seems to indicate that the real challenge to it in Maharashtra will emerge from this economically prosperous sugar belt, the Pawar-led NCP’s traditional bastion, especially with its alliance with the Shiv Sena in limbo.
Last Saturday, sharing the dais with the BJP president in Pune, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis reiterated what Shah had said: “In 2014 Lok Sabha we won 42 seats. Now, the 43rd Lok Sabha seat will be Baramati.”
The statement created a flutter as it was an open challenge from a leading light of the BJP to Pawar on his home turf. For Pawar, the Baramati Lok Sabha constituency is a family fiefdom. It is where Pawar was born. From 1967, he has contested from Baramati, only making way for daughter Supriya Sule in 2009. She has won from here two times since.
Despite the rout by the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Western Maharashtra remains Pawar’s best bet. While the NCP had got four of the 12 seats here, the BJP had got four too, while its allies Shiv Sena and Swabhiman Shetkari Sanghatna (SSS) had won two and one each. This time the SSS has declared it will contest on its own, while the BJP and Sena are still trying to find a respectable way for each to come together.
By targeting Pawar, the BJP also hopes to cripple the emergent opposition Mahagathbandhan, to bring together which Pawar has played a leading role. Says Maharashtra NCP president Jayant Patil, “We are raising the questions that are hurting the BJP. The attack against Pawar was expected after he played a proactive role in rallying opposition parties.”
Pawar has tried to fight the fire by indicating that he may be open to contesting the Lok Sabha elections, after having declared earlier that he would not be in the 2019 poll race.
The BJP’s Baramati gauntlet has also led to speculation if this signals the end of the rapport that PM Narendra Modi and Pawar appeared to enjoy. The duo have shared the public dais half-a-dozen times, on each occasion heaping lavish praise on each other. In 2014, the NCP had gone to the extent of declaring suo motu support for the BJP post-Assembly polls, but the BJP had turned down the offer.
With every seat expected to count in the final tally, BJP insiders are candid that they cannot afford to be seen as soft on the NCP. Unlike other states where regional parties have their limitations, in Maharashtra, the NCP is almost on a par or equal partner with the Congress.
Another reason for the BJP’s attack on the NCP is to underline its anti-corruption plank, at a time that the Rafale controversy has got hotter and the Congress is aggressively going after Modi for his role in the alleged “scam”.
At least three NCP leaders — Ajit Pawar, Chhagan Bhujbal and Sunil Tatkare — have been questioned by the anti-corruption bureau.