Maharashtra polls could be closer than we think

While opinion polls forecast a BJP win in Maharashtra assembly polls, experts say close finishes in multi-pronged fights could tilt scale any which way. Only consensus: Sena set to face a blow

geetanjali

Geetanjali Minhas | October 14, 2014




For the first time, a four-or five-cornered fight has made tomorrow’s election for the Maharashtra state assembly an extremely interesting one – perhaps the most interesting and unpredictable in recent times.

While all pre-poll surveys have predicted a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win, followed by the Shiv Sena, Congress, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and others, it is still anyone’s guess, as multi-party contests in each seat means cross-voting and close contests, and even a few hundred votes could make or mar a potential winner, say experts.

As for post-poll tie-ups, it’s still a field as wide as ever.

“Depending on numbers, if BJP is in a commanding position and   Shiv Sena gets the second highest votes, a post-poll alliance between the two is distinctly possible,” says veteran journalist and political commentator Kumar Ketkar, who has seen many an election over the decades. “While (pre-poll opinion) surveys are giving 150 seats to BJP, with low margins between 500-2,000 (votes) at micro level and cluster levels, it is difficult to comment. But at macro level it is quite likely for the BJP to get 100 seats.”

Even if the party gets 110-125 seats, it would be a clear win for BJP, he says, as the party would then need only about 20-25 more to get past the 145 mark. “But if BJP stops at 75-80, then it is a huge setback, even with the Sena coming along.”

Political analyst Surendra Jhondale says the  neck and neck, multi-cornered contest – besides the big four, the MNS will make it a five-cornered contest in several seats – makes is difficult to predict  potential alliances. As a result, the margin of victory or defeat too could be smaller – ranging from as low as 500 to 2,000 or 3,000; more so due to the higher number of candidates  in fray.

Due to this fact, even a lightweight candidate who is otherwise a nonentity getting 2,000-3,000 votes  might affect chances of potential winners.

With several candidates with NCP and Congress background contesting on a BJP ticket, and expected to give a tough fight to the official candidates of the two parties, Jhondale says it is “very difficult” to predict how the official NCP and Congress candidates would fare in these seats. “Going by different surveys, if the BJP gets more seats, it will mean a peaceful political decline of Shiv Sena’s influence in Maharashtra politics,” he says.

New inning for Sena
For the Shiv Sena, this is an extremely critical election, since it would be the first one after Bal Thackeray’s death and also the first in 25 years without its saffron partner, and the party is keen to retain its political base in Maharashtra. The polls will put Uddhav Thackeray to test to prove his leadership capability. A bad showing in the polls might mean an internal explosion in the party founded by his father and one that his cousin left following a leadership tussle with him.

“Uddhav has been leading the party for the last 10-15 years (when Bal Thackeray was physically unwell, before his death in November 2012), and is the reason for Raj Thackeray  leaving Sena,” says political scientist Suhas Palshikar. “(But) it was Uddhav who ran the show even during the 2009 elections, when  Balasaheb  was not fit enough to campaign. Though  Shiv Sena has not won handsomely in the previous two elections, it has not  done badly either.”

Uddhav, Palshikar says, seems to be managing the party “quite”. “He may not be as dramatic as Raj but he has managed the party as a stable force.”

But after the split with the BJP, the Sena will now have to start afresh post-election. “They must have calculated that with the BJP on ascendance, it would block other (regional) parties sooner or later,” Palshikar says, “but I am afraid Shiv Sena will not benefit much after going solo. It has taken a gamble  to get advantage as a regional party.”

For the BJP, though, going solo at the state level is both a challenge and an opportunity, he adds. “If Shiv Sena  gets 50-60 seats, and unless it joins hands with BJP once again, it cannot form the  government. Even if the saffron party garners decent number of votes, it will not be able to form government on its own, or in an alliance with the NCP or MNS,” Palshikar says.

But this effort to go solo would also give both the Sena and the BJP – as also the Congress and NCP – the opportunity to spread out to areas where each party never explored, or exploited, its chances due to the coalition compulsions. The BJP, though, is likely to draw the most advantage.

Speaking about the Sena, Jhondale does not fancy it doing too well, at least going by its words and deeds in the weeks running up to the elections. “Uddhav has lately been very critical of BJP and has used strong and harsh words against its leadership, though not the party per se,” he says. “In an emotional appeal to the people, he even accused BJP of ditching the Shiv Sena. This shows that the Sena’s  political influence is  declining. Besides, the Sena is not talking about  core poll issues affecting Maharashtra  and  has not been able to strongly resist NCP and Congress. Instead, it has raised confusion among voters.”

Ketkar says the urban populace’s “angst, hurt and injury” with the Sena will prevail, with or without the alliance. “The relationship will not be very comfortable even if it re-allies with BJP,” he says, adding that Uddhav Thackeray’s is not a case same as that of, say, Mamata Banerjee or J Jayalalithaa, who swept their states.

“Though BJP was very keen on continuing the alliance (in Maharashtra), Modi was not – he wants to establish his supremacy across the country. (But) after losing (face) in Rajasthan, UP, Bihar and Uttarakhand  he did not want to risk Maharashtra. That is why he has been campaigning like it is the Lok Sabha election,” Ketkar says.

“Nobody (no previous PM) has ever campaigned this intensively before.  Modi will not want to tie up with Sena and prefer to have President’s rule (in case of a hung assembly). The MNS’s chances of getting more than 10 seats are also very low and the alliance will not help, and the BJP poses an organisational challenge to Shiv Sena at the national level, too,” he says.

NCP-Sena tie-up post-poll?
Speaking to Governance Now, senior BJP leader Vinod Tawde says the party is confident of getting a clear majority  and rules out any post-poll alliance with either the Congress or NCP. Slamming Uddhav Thackeray for equating Modi with Afzal Khan, who came to capture or kill Maratha king Chhatrapati  Shivaji in the 17th century, he says the people  have decided to elect a single-party government to help development of the state, as the “Modi wave is a wave for development”, Tawde says.

Asked about the split with its 25-year ally, Tawde  says, “When Balasaheb was alive the issue of chief minister, MP, MLA or even mayor’s post going to any member of the Thackeray  family did not arise .This is the first  time the topic has cropped up, and the alliance broke. With  the exception of any member of Thackeray  family, we do not  have objection to anyone else from Shiv Sena for any post, and that was the reason for non-flexibility in seat-sharing.”

On a possible alliance with MNS, Tawade  says the party is a non-entity.

On its part, the Sena, too, has ruled out any alliance with BJP. Party  MP Sanjay Raut  says Sena cadres are discouraged after both parties campaigned against each other, and Sena will have to “think hard” on any post-poll alliance with BJP and future possibilities. “For 25 years there was a mutual understanding  that (if the Sena-BJP combination got the numbers) the Maharashtra chief minister will  be from Shiv Sena, which never happened. So we felt it was best for us to break away from BJP and fight on our own,” he says.

Confident that the Sena will “form the government and Uddhav Thackeray will be the CM”, Raut says this is the first assembly election after Bal Thackeray’s death, and the party believes   people’s respect for the late Thackeray would translate into a victory for the Sena. 

Says Ketkar, “Going by ground reality – that is, social understanding of the mass mind – NCP and Shiv Sena are closer to each other compared to BJP-SS. BJP is the software level while NCP and Shiv Sena is the hardware level. ”

“Not much space for MNS”

On MNS, Palshikar says the major force (leaders and grassroots workers) has remained with the Shiv Sena when Raj Thackeray broke away and there is not much space for a fifth or sixth party in the state. Besides, while floating MNS, Raj Thackeray took up the issue of Marathi identity, which the Shiv Sena was already harping on. If a new party does not  offer a fresh platform, it will not survive  beyond a certain limit, and that is what happened with Raj, Palshikar says.

Besides, his performance is not matching his speeches, Palshikar says, pointing at failure to deliver on his promises even after getting power – like in Nashik Municipal Corporation. Raj Thackeray’s stand in the Lok Sabha polls – where he put up candidates against the Sena but not on seats where the BJP fought to support Modi – and the current diatribe against the prime minister is also believed to be leaving many wannabe voters confused.

All 10 MNS candidates in the Lok Sabha elections lost their deposits, with five  getting substantially less  votes compared to  the 2009 elections.

“Now, following the BJP-Sena split, he (Raj Thackeray) has a wider scope to play an independent role,” Jhondale says. “It’s a  question of political survival .Raj did not leave Shiv Sena to return, and he wants to play major role in Maharashtra politics. And because he  wants to retain his political identity, he would never have an alliance with BJP and wants to be the major political force in opposition after the elections.”

Uddhav, who has been  vocal of his criticism for MNS during previous election, has not attacked the party this time, and Raj too has been hinting at a possible reunion with his cousin.

Ruling out an alliance with NCP, MNS MLA Bala Nadgaonkar  says that with the exception of Congress, they are  open to coalition with BJP and Shiv Sena. “A government by the Thackerays will be good for the people of Maharashtra,” Nandgaonkar says.

MNS is contesting 230 seats, though not widely across Maharashtra.

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