Rebellion has got on top of all parties and issues have receded to the background.
The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance will probably emerge as the leading front in the Maharashtra Assembly elections today but for all the wrong reasons. The Lok Sabha polls earlier this year gave the Congress 17 seats while the NCP had to settle for eight. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won nine and its ally, the Shiv Sena, 11. Three independents, two of them from the NCP citadel of western Maharashtra won the rest.
With the Sena-BJP alliance weakening in the State, there is virtually no alternative left for its beleaguered 7.56 crore voters. Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which hopes to ride on its nascent success in the Lok Sabha polls and win some seats, will damage the Sena more than any other party. The other issue is rebellion in the ranks. In several constituencies, notably in western Maharashtra, rebels could sway the outcome. In 20-odd constituencies they pose a challenge to the Congress-NCP.
As a result, rebellion has got on top of all parties and issues have receded to the background. The MNS is contesting 145 of the 288 seats and Mr. Raj Thackeray is gaining ground every day. His rallies are breaking attendance records. In some places, notably in Mumbai, Thane and Nashik, these could translate into wins. The 60 seats in Mumbai and Thane hold the key to the ruling alliance’s fortunes. It is here that it must win to make sure that forms the next government. And it is here that the MNS could dent the Sena vote and help the Congress alliance. For Sena executive president Uddhav Thackeray, this election could well be a litmus test of his party’s standing as the voice of Marathi manoos.
Maharashtra is a State of skewed development — poverty, backwardness and huge riches. In western Maharashtra, where rebels are threatening to dent the base of established leaders, political rivalry and lack of performance of MLAs and ministers are coming to the fore. In Sangli district, for instance, where there are four ministers in the fray, NCP rebel Prithviraj Deshmukh is offering a real challenge to Revenue Minister and aspirant to the Chief Minister’s post Patangrao Kadam, seeking re-election in his newly delimited constituency of Palus-Kadegaon. A former independent MLA, Mr. Deshmukh did not contest in 2004, because the NCP told him not to. This time he was not prepared to take a back seat. He has managed to get the support of the Shiv Sena’s Pravin Gondil, who withdrew his nomination in his favour.
Mr. Deshmukh has all the trappings of power: a powerful father, a sugar factory and a milk cooperative, apart from other institutions. Unemployment is a major issue here as also the fact that Mr. Kadam has over the years done precious little. People allege that Mr. Kadam has taken common grazing grounds and even a burial ground on lease for his many educational institutions. Unhappy voters have burnt his effigies.
Western Maharashtra typifies the sleazy side of Maratha politics and family feuds go a long way. Mr. Kadam campaigned against the Congress MP Pratik Patil during the Lok Sabha polls and it is rumoured that he is backing Mr. Deshmukh. Forty-four-year-old Deshmukh has the support of youth and even the local MNS. Pune and Kolhapur could see some serious rebellion, while the Vinay Kores Jansurajya Shakti is challenging the Maratha might with some 60 candidates. Poverty and affluence coexist in this region. On the one hand is Mr. Deshmukh, seeking power and, on the other, is Salim Mulla (name changed), who just wants is a job for his postgraduate brother. Salim, a graduate in English, who is working in a sugar factory for Rs 3,000 a month, cleared an army examination but he could not muster a bribe of Rs. 80,000. His landless parents are too old to work and his younger brother, an M.A. in economics, works as a labourer spraying pesticides on fields for Rs 60 a day. It is people like Salim who support Deshmukh hoping that a change can improve their lives.
Beyond the numbers game, the rebels, and the speculation on who will form the government is the reality that for the poor and the backward, a new regime could mean little. While sugar factories, milk cooperatives and educational institutions have become the power base for Marathas and Other Backward Class (OBC) leaders like Gopinath Munde, BJP MP from Beed, the aam admi figures as an also ran.
The aam admi is bypassed even in the race for ticket. It has led to aam rebels all over. Rajendra Shekhawat, whose only claim to fame is that he is President Pratibha Patil’s son, gets ticket to contest in Amravati and the stronger claims of the sitting MLA and Minister Sunil Deshmukh are ignored. No wonder, Mr. Deshmukh has rebelled. The elections see a record number of next of kin and relatives of prominent politicians in the fray. While top leaders like Union Heavy Industries Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh maintain the demand for fielding his son Amit has come from the electorate in Latur, there will be few takers for this claim. It is not only the Congress but also the BJP that is guilty of nepotism. Mr. Munde too has leapt into dynastic succession mode in a big way. He has consolidated his already powerful position in Beed by fielding his disarming daughter, Pankaja Munde Palve, for the Parli seat, while Gangakhed has gone to his brother’ son-in-law, Madhusudhan Kendre. In Mumbai too, after unsuccessfully trying for a Lok Sabha ticket for his niece and daughter of the late Pramod Mahajan, Poonam Mahajan, he swung it for her this time in Ghatkopar west. Never mind the resentment of the local cadres who are working against her. The Congress pays lip service to the aam admi, which admittedly voted it back to power at the Centre, and its vote banks of Muslims and Scheduled Castes. In the Lok Sabha elections the Congress gained from its usual support base. With the projection of a Maratha Prime Minister and the demand for reservation for Marathas failing to move the voters in the general elections, this time the NCP has quietly dropped the issue. The focus is more on containing the rebellion in its ranks and improving its performance.
For the record, of the 288 Assembly seats, the Congress and the NCP are contesting 174 and 114. The Sena has fielded candidates in 69 constituencies, while the BJP will contest 119 seats. The Congress, which won 69 seats in the 2004 Assembly elections, improved its tally to 75 after Narayan Rane’s exit from the Sena along with his supporters who got elected in the subsequent by-elections. The NCP won 71 seats. The Sena won 62 and the BJP 54. In 2009, the Congress-NCP combine hopes to maintain its tally or even increase it, while the Opposition is unrealistically confident of winning the polls. The Congress is talking about the huge funds it has got for urban development in Mumbai and other cities like Nanded, Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s turf, apart from the historic Rs. 71,000- loan waiver for farmers. Farm suicides continue though for parties these do not figure as an election issue. Poor crops salvaged somewhat with the late rains, leading to floods in some parts, have eased the water and fodder crisis much to the relief of the ruling alliance.
The new Republican Left Democratic Front, which is contesting all seats, could make a dent in the Congress base in certain constituencies. The Congress managed to break RPI unity and ally with Rajendra Gavai of the Republican Party of India (Gavai) group, giving it two seats. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which got a vote share of 4.83 per cent in the Lok Sabha polls, is contesting almost all seats once again.
The Congress had a vote share of 19.61 per cent in the Lok Sabha polls in 2009, while the NCP was close behind with 19.28 per cent . The BJP got 18.17 per cent and the Sena a poor 17 per cent. The Congress led in 79 of the 288 Assembly segments, the BJP and the Sena in 61, while the NCP led in 52 and the MNS in eight. The ruling alliance feels that it is sure of victory in 2009, but what it means to the State and its people is not hard to guess.