Sunday afternoon’s events in Mumbai, with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) splitting and much of its senior leadership joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra, are not just being seen as a blow to the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance in the State but also to the attempts to forge a larger Opposition unity nationally.
Despite splitting the Shiv Sena, the BJP-Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde faction) alliance in Maharashtra was on shaky ground as far its electoral prospects going into the 2024 General and Assembly polls in the State were concerned. This was reflected last winter, when the national leadership of the BJP increased the number of its so-called “vulnerable Lok Sabha seats” from Maharashtra and Bihar from 144 to 160, purely on the strength of the fact that their long time alliances in Maharashtra and Bihar (with the Janata Dal-United or JD-U) had ended. The State unit of the BJP in Maharashtra had, in fact, asked for a double ticket election in the State just to capitalise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity (Assembly polls in Maharashtra are due in late 2024, just a few months after the Lok Sabha polls).
With the split in the NCP and its major leaders with mass followings and support bases, the BJP feels far more assured in facing polls. The crossing over of leaders like Chhagan Bhujbal and Sunil Tatkare is a boost to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
The crossing of these leaders, as well as the presence of former Union Minister Praful Patel, who is considered a die-hard Sharad Pawar loyalist, serves two purposes for the BJP.
Firstly, it demonstrates that Mr. Sharad Pawar’s decision to nominate his daughter, Supriya Sule, as his successor is not a universally popular move within the NCP. The leader with the most organisational heft in the NCP after his uncle is still Mr. Ajit Pawar.
Secondly, and slightly contrary to the first, it may sow distrust with regard to Mr. Sharad Pawar among the Opposition parties who gathered in Patna this month to hammer out a unified Opposition group. The exit of Mr. Bhujbal, Mr. Patel, Mr. Tatkare and Dilip Walse-Patil, all of whom were close to Mr. Sharad Pawar, has already sparked speculation that it could be a move by Pawar senior to sail in both boats. In fact, the statements made by the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis, in interviews just days before the NCP split, wherein he said that Mr. Sharad Pawar had been in the know about the early morning swearing-in of Mr. Ajit Pawar in 2019 could be fertilising that seed of suspicion.
Whatever the case may be, the BJP feels that the Opposition’s efforts to forge unity will be hit by the events in Maharashtra. With 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, the State not only has numerical heft but, as home to India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, is also important for generating the resources to fight polls.