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Congress-NCP retains Maharashtra

By Kalpana Sharma

VICTORY IS SWEET: Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar is mobbed by partymen, (below) Congress president Sonia Gandhi reacts to the Maharashtra Assembly election results, in New Delhi on Saturday. The Congress also won a major share of the seats in the by-elections across the country. -- Photos: V. Sudershan and Shanker Chakravarty

MUMBAI, OCT. 16. At the end of a day full of tension, hope and disappointment, when the fortunes of two major political alliances swung between the possibility of victory and defeat, the pendulum finally swung in favour of the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance in Mahararashtra Assembly elections. Together they won 141 seats in the 288-member Assembly — the Congress 69, the NCP 71 and the Republican Party of India (Athavale), one — four short of a simple majority.

Their main opponents, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance won 117 seats, the Shiv Sena 62, the BJP 54 and the Swatantra Bharat Paksh (STBP) one. By late afternoon, they had conceded defeat.

But even as the detailed results came streaming in through the day, it became clear that the real victor in the fiercely contested Maharashtra Assembly election was the Nationalist Congress Party led by the Union Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar.

NCP forges ahead

While the NCP started off as the junior partner of the Congress in their joint bid to retain power in the State, it emerged as the party with the largest number of seats. The NCP contested 124 seats and won 71 while the Congress contested 157 and won only 68, its lowest score ever in Maharashtra, which has been its long-standing stronghold. In 1999, when the NCP and the Congress had fought the elections separately, the NCP had won 58 seats while the Congress won 75. In this election, both parties saw a decline in their share of the vote. But while the NCP increased its seat tally, the swing away from the Congress of 6.91 per cent showed up in the six seats it lost.

Even as it became clear by early afternoon that the numbers favoured the Congress-NCP alliance, the question being asked in political circles was whether the NCP would try for the Chief Minister's post in the light of its better performance. While the Chief Minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, refused to respond to questions on this issue, the Union Aviation Minister and Mr. Pawar's close confidante, Praful Patel of the NCP told The Hindu, "We are not interested in Chief Ministership. We are more interested in government." Both sides preferred to avoid addressing the issue until the legislative parties meet tomorrow.

Another major surprise thrown up by the election results was the almost total absence of the Bahujan Samaj Party as a factor in the final result. In the run-up to the elections, both alliances had feared that the BSP, which contested 272 seats, the largest number by any party, would adversely affect the Congress-NCP in particular in Vidarbha and Marathwada. The BSP chief, Mayawati, had spoken of holding the "balance of power". When the votes were counted, the BSP registered a zero in number of seats won and only 3.88 per cent of the vote share.

The other factor that was expected to affect the Congress-NCP was the presence of "rebels" particularly in western Maharashtra.

While the rebels that came together under the banner of the Jan Surajya Shakti (JSS) led by Vinay Vilasrao Kore won four seats, of the 19 Independents who won, nine are also such "rebel" candidates.

This affected the Congress-NCP in western Maharashtra where it could have won a larger number of seats comfrotably. But the Congress-NCP alliance had begun negotiating with some of the "rebels" even before the elections results were out. Today, it is clear that the alliance does not need to depend on their support to form a government. As a beaming Shinde told the press, "Mamla kahtam ho gaya hai (the issue is now over)".

Three parties that were allied to the Congress-NCP but decided to contest separately in the election won a small number of seats.

They are the Communist Party of India (Marxist) three seats, the Peasants and Workers Party of India (PWPI) two seats Prakash Ambedkar's Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), a faction of the Republican Party of India, which won one seat. The Congress-NCP combine is hopeful that all three will support their government.

Arun Gawli wins

The party of the former underworld don, Arun Gawli, the Akhil Bharatiya Sena (ABHS) opened its account with one seat, that of Gawli.

The Congress-NCP alliance is expected to stake its claim to form a government tomorrow after meetings of elected legislators and party leaders who are all converging on Mumbai tonight and tomorrow morning. Party sources suggest that the victorious NCP legislators are likely to demand a greater say in government formation.

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