Arunkumar Bhatt

Political parties which used to stay away join the fray

MUMBAI: Political parties who in the past chose to stay away are now participating enthusiastically in the local elections in Maharashtra to be held on Sunday. In 169 municipalities, 16,317 candidates will fight it out for 3,857 seats. About 120 seats, including all seats in the municipalities of Ashta in Sangli district and Panhala in Kolhapur district, have already been won unopposed.

The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) share power in the State but are archrivals in most of the towns. The Shiv Sena and BJP have an equally fragile union in many places. Nobody hides extra-alliance and intra-coalition associations. The NCP is an ally of the BJP and Shiv Sena at several places and the BJP is hand in glove with the Congress elsewhere.

All parties have allowed their long time activists to contest on their own as `rebels' and these independents have formed local fronts that sometimes even include official nominees of the very parties they have rebelled against. These rebels are assured of a red carpet welcome back into the party if they win and no disciplinary action if they lose.

Even individual politicians who want to retain or build their political bases have forgotten their party labels and have formed their own alliances.

For instance, former Shiv Sena minister in the Vajpayee government and now a Congress MP, Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil, has formed his own panel in the pilgrim centre of Shirdi that is taking on the official candidates of the Congress. Although there is no love lost between Mr. Vikhe-Patil and Mr. Sharad Pawar, NCP members are on the former's panel.

In Bhusaval, the situation is even stranger with followers of former NCP minister Suresh Jain, of BJP's Eknath Khadse, of the Shiv Sena and of the Congress joining together `for the development of the town.' Thus independents and candidates of instant alliances outnumber those of political parties. While independents number 6,912 and other alliances have 1,680 nominees in the fray, the Congress has fielded 2,532, the NCP 2,233, Shiv Sena 1,409 and the BJP 1,295.

Growing urbanisation has increased the importance of the civic elections.

According to the BJP spokesman, Madhav Bhandari, these towns account for over 51 per cent of the State's electorate and that share would rise to 57 per cent by 2009 when the Assembly goes to the polls.