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Maharashtra 2014 - A Two-and-a-Half Horse Race

The Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navanirman Sena is once again set to determine the electoral outcome in the Lok Sabha elections this year in Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance should be concerned, as the MNS polarised the votes, both in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections, in the state in 2009 to benefit the Congress-NCP combine. 

Since the late 1990s, electoral politics has been characterised by a stable bipolar competition, various third front experiments notwithstanding. The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), on one hand, and the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the other, have been contesting elections in alliance, though not always in tandem. The split in the Shiv Sena and the subsequent formation of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) in 2006 changed the scenario. Disgruntled Shiv Sainiks made a bee-line for the new party, which sought to beat the Shiv Sena at its own game by following the same style of politics.

Past Electoral Performance : MNS

The performance of the MNS in the Lok Sabha and the assembly elections in 2009 demonstrated that despite being a new entrant it was now a serious player in state politics. Though it could not establish itself throughout the state, it managed to hit the Sena-BJP where it hurt, namely the Mumbai-Thane belt in these two elections. The Congress-NCP combine could win all the six Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai with slim margins mainly due to the division of votes caused by the MNS.

Its capacity to damage the opposition and bolster the ruling alliance was even more evident in the assembly elections held in late 2009. While the MNS won 13 seats, its performance managed to deprive nearly a dozen seats to the saffron combine. One can easily speculate that had the MNS not been in existence in 2009, the Congress-NCP combine would have lost power in the state. As wags put it, it was the MNS’ railway engine that pulled the UPA’s gravy train to power.

This time around too, the MNS has announced its first list of candidates for some, but not all, constituencies in Mumbai.  The metropolis goes to the polls on 24 April, and the last day of filing nominations was 5 April. Whether the MNS will contest all the seats in the Mumbai-Thane belt, is a moot question.  In some constituencies, like Pune, the MNS had fielded a stronger candidate as compared to 2009. Thus, there is no doubt that the presence of its candidates in many places is already a serious cause of concern for the Sena-BJP combine. Like in 2009, the MNS’s electoral performance will determine the extent of the ruling combine’s success at least in the urban areas.

Perhaps it is this factor that has led the Shiv Sena-BJP combine to stitch up a broad alliance with the Ramdas Athavale-led Republican Party of India faction, Raju Shetti’s Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghantana, and Mahadev Jankar’s Rashtriya Samaj Party. All three have pockets of strength, particularly in Western Maharashtra.  Shetti is a sitting Member of Parliament (MP), and his victory in 2009 was a stunning upset for the NCP. He has already carved out a stronger profile for himself by his leadership of the movement for higher sugarcane prices. But again, will this broadening help the Sena-BJP combine in the Lok Sabha elections. Perhaps not.  But it will certainly yield results in the forthcoming assembly polls where even a slight shift of votes has a larger impact. 

Smaller Parties in the Fray

The usual third front experiments are being repeated even this time around. Prakash Ambedkar-led Bahujan Mahasangh has forged the Maharashtra Democratic Front, an alliance of the left parties. Apart from Ambedkar’s own political base in the Akola district in Vidarbha and some pockets of strength that the CPI (M) still possesses, the alliance partners are largely marginal players in the politics of the state. Hence, it would not have any electoral impact either way.  

The Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), a party, which till recently, was always a part of such alliances, has gone it own way. Its stance is largely dictated by the need to keep its political base in coastal Raigad district intact. The PWP’s plan seems to be to play the spoiler for the Congress-NCP combine in at least one Lok Sabha constituency. 

The Bahujan Samaj Party was once quite the rage, particularly in the Vidarbha region. It was often accused of playing the spoiler for the Congress-NCP alliance. But its popularity had declined as compared to 2009. Where once the disaffected of all parties flocked to the BSP for a ticket, this is no longer the case now.

Another new entrant into state politics is the Hyderabad-based Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM). It made a splash in the Nanded municipal polls in 2012 by winning 11 seats. The party’s success certainly robbed the Congress of a thumping majority in the local body by denting what was regarded as the latter’s traditional vote-bank in the home-town of two former chief ministers. The MIM is now looking at spreading its wings especially in the Marathwada region.  Its strategy as far as Lok Sabha elections is not yet clear;  in any case it might not have much of an impact.. But the forthcoming assembly elections, to be held later this year, might see a different scenario. The real test of the MIM’s staying power would come in the local body polls to be held three years down the line.  

Though much is being promised by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), its visibility and many high-profile candidates mask its inherent weakness.  Its organisation is rather thin on the ground. The party managed to attract film actors, retired bureaucrats and the like into its fold, and some of them are contesting the coming elections. But the major chunk of the party’s top leadership in the state comes from those associated with the socialist movement in Maharashtra. Some had long standing links with the Janata Parivar and its various incarnations like the Janata Dal.  Many of them were active in the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, while some of them had eschewed electoral politics altogether and in fact looked at it with great contempt.  Most of them flocked to the party in the wake of its success in Delhi. One wonders whether they would have displayed the same level of enthusiasm had the AAP fared badly in the national capital.

The AAP candidates are certainly well-known and some even popular, but it is highly doubtful whether this would translate into meaningful votes for the party. The only two candidates of the AAP who would secure a substantial number of votes are Medha Patkar in Mumbai North East, and Wamanrao Chatap, a long standing close aide of Sharad Joshi, in Chandrapur, and for reasons extraneous to the AAP. The latter commands a substantial following of his own and had secured over a lakh votes in 2009. Therefore it is quite unlikely that AAP will cut into anybody’s votes. At the least, it might secure the support of the hitherto apathetic voter who might see in the party an option worth voting for. The AAP is certain to garner more media attention than votes.

But apart from these, an even more important factor is the tension within the two alliances. The Sena and the BJP had near-public spat over the latter’s attempts to draw the MNS into the alliance fold. News reports suggest that the Sena might attempt to cause trouble for Nitin Gadkari in his Nagpur parliamentary constituency. The BJP in many constituencies has been plagued by the effects of the Gopinath Munde-Gadkari rivalry. In contrast, the Congress and NCP seem to be pulling together, perhaps more due to a realisation that if they do not swim together, they are bound to sink.

Two-and-a-Half Horse Race

In sum, the Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra promises to be a two-and-a-half horse race. The performance of the third contestant, one who is not in a position to win on its own, but can determine the winner, is going to determine the ultimate outcome.  This third position will be occupied by different political forces in different states.  Being the third player does not necessarily mean that its candidates will necessarily occupy the third position when the votes are counted. In some cases, they might even occupy the second position but will never win. Thus, of the first two contenders, one who gets hobbled the least will end up winning the prize.   

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