Monday will be a crucial test for the Congress-NCP as both parties attempt to win back ground from the BJP-Shiv Sena, which has been successful in running an election campaign based on aggressive nationalism.
The standout feature of the election campaigning, however, was how the BJP-Shiv Sena partnership was riven by rows. The Sena, which has fielded Aaditya Thackeray from Worli, is fearful that an aggressive and confrontational BJP is set on devouring it and claim sole leadership of the state. The BJP sees its alliance with the Sena as a tactical necessity to consolidate Hindutva supporters but in the long run it craves its own supremacy in Maharashtra over a complicated alliance.
This game of oneupmanship between the allies has seen both parties prop up a record number of rebels in this election. These candidates are going to play an important role in deciding the fate of official candidates in over 50 constituencies.
While in most elections the public gets to choose which issues really matter, in the present election the BJP has managed to ensure that the electoral narrative has not strayed from the twin messages of nationalism and national security. In a large number of places, concerns about economic slowdown and job losses did not find much resonance among voters.
The Congress-NCP too has been criticised for fractious infighting and political own goals that do not seem to be helping its chances. While NCP chief Sharad Pawar has led the opposition charge, there is a sense that the lone fight put up by the 79-year-old Maratha politician may not be enough to get them across the finish line.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, only the second chief minister in Maharashtra to complete a full term, has spearheaded the BJP’s campaign and set his eyes on ensuring that the party gets 130 to 135 seats on its own. A strong electoral showing by the BJP and its ability to cross the 35 per cent vote share in Maharashtra will solidify Fadnavis’ future political career. A section within the BJP believes the “overdose” of Article 370 by BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not permit Fadnavis to use the development plank that got him and the BJP much approval during his Mahajanadesh Yatra.
The NCP chief continues to remain a legacy brand in Maharashtra’s politics. In spite of the large-scale defections from his party in the run-up to the Assembly elections he still has a loyal army of supporters prepared to stand out in the rain for him as witnessed in Satara a few days back. The response that he has drawn in his 50-odd campaign rallies has consolidated Pawar’s stature as the tallest opposition leader to take on the BJP in Maharashtra. The election results and the next six months will, however, be the key in deciding whether Pawar at the age of 79 has managed to script the revival of the NCP or whether he will be forced to preside over the calamitous fall of the party that he founded.
After forging an alliance with the BJP ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, the Sena chief has the bigger challenge of winning maximum seats from the total 126 seats the party is contesting, which will strengthen the party’s hands in ensuring what it calls “equal power sharing formula” in the state after the polls. Besides, he also has the task to establish his son Aaditya in these polls. Compounding his worries, the BJP gave its ally only 124 Assembly seats and the Sena had no choice but to accept. The results will determine if Uddhav’s decision of forging alliance with the BJP was right. Whichever way it goes, it will be a new chapter in Sena’s history.
Aaditya has become the first Thackeray to contest an election since the inception of the Shiv Sena in the 60s. If the Sena is able to win more seats, Aaditya, whose Jan Ashirwad Yatra raised his pan-Maharashtra profile, will share the credit for the party’s performance. So, based on the party’s performance, this election could establish him in the party and at the government level. All this is also likely to have a bearing on his claim of leading the state either as chief minister or deputy chief minister.
He is seen as the handpicked man of BJP president Amit Shah and is being groomed for higher responsibilities ahead. But the biggest challenge for Patil, the party’s Maratha face, is to ensure his own victory with a huge margin from Kothrud Assembly constituency in Pune district. As the minister of revenue and public works department in the state government, Patil was considered second in command after Fadnavis but until recently, kept a low profile. If Fadnavis moves to Delhi, as is being widely speculated, Patil could be his successor in Maharashtra.
His “no nonsense, tough guy” image made him the best hope for resuscitating the NCP. His decision to resign as an MLA and publicly take swipe at party colleagues like Chhagan Bhujbal in the run-up to the Assembly elections, however, set the stage for the potential unmaking of his image. Pawar’s political career has been dogged by criticism that he was riding on the coattails of his uncle Sharad Pawar and lacked the skills of keeping the various NCP satraps together. With a potential ED inquiry looming over his head, his performance along with those of his close associates in the elections will determine if he can take over the reins of the party from the party patriarch, as long speculated.
Going into the polls, the Congress in Maharashtra has been in deep turmoil since the Lok Sabha results and the flurry of departures in the last few months has adversely impacted the party’s poll campaign. And Vijay (Balasaheb) Thorat, the man at the centre of it all, is already facing the heat.
While Thorat, a seven-time MLA who was elevated to Maharashtra Congress president barely two months ago, is expected to win his own seat, Sangamner in Ahmednagar district, comfortably, he had the unenviable task of turning the Congress into a fighting unit. In the run-up the polls, some Congress leaders raised questions over Thorat’s ability to lead the party in the state.
The former chief minister is battling for more than pride this time as he tries to retain his family’s pocket borough, Bhokar in Nanded district. Back in 2014, it was Chavan who had salvaged some face for the Congress when he became one of the only two Congress candidates to win the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Maharashtra. Chavan was subsequently made state Congress chief but things have gone downhill after he lost the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He was forced to step down as state Congress chief. Still the most popular face of the Congress in the state, he has replaced his wife, Ameeta, a sitting legislator, as the Congress’ candidate for the Bhokar seat. Chavan remains confident of retaining the seat. But even his closest supporters admit that he has a tough battle ahead.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Prakash Ambedkar staged a comeback in the mainstream politics of Maharashtra after polling 42 lakh votes that adversely impacted the fate of opposition candidates in several seats. Although VBA is once again expected to play the role of spoiler by eating into votes of Congress and NCP, the electoral fate of Ambedkar will depend on whether Dalits and OBCs rally around him. Additionally, the AIMIM, which partnered him in the Lok Sabha elections, is going it alone this time. VBA’s electoral performance will determine if Ambedkar can replace the weakened Congress and NCP as the main opposition. From the election campaign it was evident that Ambedkar restricted himself to an agenda highlighting the condition of the oppressed and poor. He was also vocal against right wing RSS politics.
Jaleel was seen as the reason for the divorce between the AIMIM and Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi. It was due to Jaleel’s insistence that the party has fielded 44 candidates in Maharashtra, the highest so far since the Hyderabad-headquartered party started contesting elections in Maharashtra. Jaleel’s attempt at “social engineering” has seen MIM fielding 13 Hindu candidates. However, the selection of candidates has also rankled the party’s old guard, many of whom were denied tickets and are now working against the party. The upcoming elections will decide Jaleel’s future as the head of the state unit and also reveal if the AIMIM remains a potent political force in Maharashtra.
After initially contemplating not contesting the polls, the MNS has fielded 101 candidates in the Assembly polls. The MNS chief has toned down the campaigning in the polls which came after inquiry by Enforcement Directorate in August. So, this election is crucial for him to keep his party relevant in the state. While he was able to gather the crowd for his rallies, it would be interesting to see whether he is able to convert the crowd into voting for his party. Also, it would be need to be seen on how many seats the party would win as it has tacit understanding with NCP on some seats.