The impending Pune Lok Sabha bypoll has brought into the open tensions over seat-sharing among the allies of the Opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi — the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Congress and Shiv Sena (UBT) — ahead of the 2024 general election.
With 48 seats up for grabs in Maharashtra, the top leadership of the three parties had said ‘elective merit’ will be the watchword while allocating seats.
However, NCP leader Ajit Pawar’s recent remark that the stronger party ought to contest from Pune has irked the Congress, which has won the seat 10 out of the 17 it has gone to the polls. Mr. Pawar pointed out the abysmal record of the Congress in Pune in the civic and Assembly polls, and the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when it lost to the BJP by over three lakh votes.
“The Congress has been losing the Pune Lok Sabha seat for a long time. As per my knowledge, it has not won the seat since [former Congress Union Minister] Vitthalrao Gadgil won it… If our alliance partner is consistently losing the seat, then it should be given to another party that is better placed. The party whose strength is more should get that [Pune Lok Sabha] seat. We currently have the necessary strength. We [the NCP] have 40 corporators in the Pune civic body while the Congress has only 10,” Mr. Pawar said.
Sensing an opportunity
The Pune seat has now fallen vacant following the demise of BJP leader Girish Bapat in March. It followed the death of two other local party leaders — former Pune Mayor Mukta Tilak and Pimpri-Chinchwad strongman Laxman Jagtap — leaving the party rudderless in the district. The Congress is now sensing an opportunity to reclaim its lost bastion given the leadership vacuum in the BJP.
Given the Brahmin influence over the city’s history since the 18th century, the seat has favoured candidates from the community from all parties, particularly of the Gadgil clan. Stalwart Congressmen N.V. Gadgil and his son Vitthal Gadgil, both Union Ministers in the Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi cabinets, respectively, won the seat four times between them.
“N.V. Gadgil won the seat in 1951 and his son won in 1980, 1984 and 1989. Congress leader Suresh Kalmadi won the seat in 1996, 2004 and 2009, while Vitthal Tupe won in 1998. After Vitthal Gadgil, Congress won the seat four times. So, Ajit Pawar’s statement that the party never won after Vitthal Gadgil is completely off the mark,” said Ramesh Iyer, Pune City Congress general secretary and spokesman.
However, the Congress’ grip over Pune has loosened after Mr. Kalmadi’s drift into political oblivion. Fierce intra-party factionalism, compounded by a bad choice of candidates, has contributed to the party’s misfortunes.
The Congress win in March in the bypoll to the Kasba Peth Assembly seat, part of the Pune Lok Sabha constituency and a BJP bastion for over 25 years, had given the party hope of retaining its grip over Pune.
‘NCP eyeing seat’
A senior Congressman, speaking to The Hindu on condition of anonymity, said NCP president Sharad Pawar’s calculus was that the Congress must not grow in the State. “This extends to the Pune Lok Sabha seat as well. The NCP has, in fact, been eyeing the seat for the last two years,” he said.
Mr. Iyer said the Congress had always followed the ‘coalition dharma’ and aided the NCP in Pune district. “The two Congress MLAs in the Baramati Lok Sabha segment have always campaigned wholeheartedly for Supriya Sule, the MP from Baramati, the stronghold of the Pawar clan. Furthermore, the NCP already has two Lok Sabha seats in Pune district [Baramati and Shirur],” he said.
Sena’s tacit support
Political observers say the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena (UBT) has given tacit support to the NCP’s claim over Pune as it is eyeing Maval, one of the four Lok Sabha seats in Pune district, which was won by the Shiv Sena’s Shrirang Barne in 2019.
Though Mr. Barne later joined Eknath Shinde’s rebel faction, the Sena (UBT) claims to have a strong base there. However, Mr. Ajit Pawar has also set his eyes on the Maval seat as his son, Parth Pawar, had lost the seat to Mr. Barne in 2019.
With fiercely competing interests among the allies, the Pune bypoll is set to be a dress rehearsal for the MVA ahead of seat-sharing for the 2024 Lok Sabha poll.