By T N Raghunatha from Mumbai

When he addressed his party workers in Pune on February 9 this year, BJP’s national president Amit Shah said that he was working towards the BJP-Sena alliance winning a staggering 45 out 48 seats (including Pawars’ home seat of Baramati) in Maharashtra in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He based his aim on the BJP-Sena combine’s superlative performance in 2014 Lok Sabha polls when the two parties together won 40 seats (BJP-22 and Sena-18) in the state. Unfortunately, Shah overlooked the ground realities when he made the tall claim.

Unlike in the 2014 polls that saw the BJP ride on the back of intense Modi wave, the situation is not as conducive for the ruling alliance partners as it was in the 2014 polls. Nor is the Opposition weak or dispirited as it was in 2014.

Given that it has the second highest representation (48 seats) in Lok Sabha – next only to Uttar Pradesh that catapults 80 MPs to the lower House of Parliament, Maharashtra is as important for the BJP as UP, in its bid to return to power at the Centre. No wonder the BJP made certain compromises and wooed back its long-time saffron ally Shiv Sena, which had repeatedly said that it would go it alone in Lok Sabha, State Assembly and all other elections in future.

With seat-sharing arrangements having been formalised by the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance-led “Maha Yuti”, Congress-NCP combine-headed “Mahaghatbandhan” and two smaller third and fourth-fronts, there is near clarity in the election scene in Maharashtra. While the BJP is contesting 25 Lok Sabha seats, the Shiv Sena is fielding candidates in the remaining 23 LS constituencies. From the “Mahaghatbandhan”, the Congress and NCP will contest 24 and 20 seats respectively, leaving the remaining four seats to the smaller constituents.

What has muddled the poll scene in Maharashtra is the presence of Samajwadi Party-BSP alliance and Bharipa Bahujan Mahsangh (BBM)-AIMIM combine-led “Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi”, both of which are contesting all the 48 seats each. The third and fourth front candidates may play spoilsports for both “Maha-Yuti” and “Mahaghatbandhan” candidates in at least a dozen constituencies, where there is a sizeable Muslim and Dalit population.

Much to the relief of the ruling saffron alliance, the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has announced that it would not contest the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The absence of the MNS in the electoral fray should be seen in the context of the fact that in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, though the MNS did not win any of the 11 seats it had contested, its candidates had polled more than one lakh votes in as many as nine constituencies-a development that had contributed in a big way to the Sena-BJP alliance's debacle in the state.

However, in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the MNS put up a miserable performance. Not only did all its 10 candidates lose their deposits, the MNS vote share was reduced from 4.6 per cent in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls to just 1.5 per cent. The MNS candidates collectively polled more than 4 lakh votes in four Lok Sabha constituencies Mumbai metropolitan Region (MMR).

However, MNS chief Raj Thackeray has come out against the Modi government and vowed to work towards what he calls “Modi Mukt Bharat”. He will be addressing several rallies in the coming weeks to exhort the electors to vote against the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.

Going by the statistics of the 2014 polls which saw the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance poll 47.9 per cent votes as against 34.1 per cent votes polled by the then ruling Congress-NCP alliance, the incumbent saffron alliance is on a formidable wicket. However, there has been sea change in the situation on the ground, with the Modi government at the Centre and the Devendra Fadnavis dispensation in the state reeling under anti-incumbency due to agrarian crisis, continued farmer suicides, improper implementation of the farm loan waiver scheme, dalit issues spawned by Bhima-Koregaon caste riots.

The ruling saffron alliance may also have to also contend with issues like demonetisation and corruption issues raked up by the Opposition Congress and NCP alliance. What will prove to be deterimental to the ruling saffron alliance is the total absence of Modi wave. In the 2014 election, Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi, who was till then an untested entity, had ridden the poll scene like a colossus. With so much of exposure and failure to keep his promises, Modi no longer creates as much of impact on people as he did in the previous election. No wonder that the BJP leaders are not talking about development issues, but are trying to whip up patriotic fervour by raising the issue of IAF’s air strikes terror camps in Pakistan and questioning the nationalist credentials of the Congress-NCP combine leaders.

On the other hand, the Congress and NCP, which had put up a miserable performance by winning just two and four seats respectively in the 2014 polls, have improved their position on ground. They have cobbled up somewhat an effective “Mahaghatbandhan” by teaming up three smaller parties, setting aside four seats to them and bringing under their umbrella 50-odd small political parties and entities representing different sections of the society. Another factor that goes in their favour is that they have launched their electioneering earlier than the ruling alliance.

However, the ruling saffron alliance is cashing in on NCP President Sharad Pawar’s decision to back out of the Lok Sabha poll race from Madha Lok Sabha constituency ostensibly to pave way for the nomination of his grand nephew Parth Pawar as the candidate from Maval constituency in Pune district.

Parth (28) is the son of Pawar’s nephew and Maharashtra’s former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar. He is the third generation Pawar to make his debut in electoral politics. Parth is contesting the Maval seat that is currently held by the Shiv Sena. He will take on the sitting Sena MP Gajanan Babar in the polls.

Making an issue of Pawar’s decision not to contest the Lok Sabha polls, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had a caustic dig at the 78 year-old Maratha leader at the launch of the saffron alliance campaign in the temple town of Kolhapur on Sunday night: “They are changing the candidates every day. Their captain (Sharad Pawar) has withdrawn from Madha constituency. Here is the captain who earlier wanted to open the innings but has now become a 12th man and a non-playing captain. As a result, the people have made up their mind to support the BJP-Sena alliance in Maharashtra and ensure the return of the Narendra Modi-led NDA at the Centre”.

Key contests are being witnessed in Nagpur where Union Minister and senior BJP leader Nitin Gadkari takes on former BJP MP and bitter Modi critic Nana Patole, in Nanded where former chief minister and state Congress president Ashok Chavan is seeking re-election, in Baramati and Maval where Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule and grand nephew Parth Pawar are contesting respectively, in Raigad where Sena leader and Union Minister Anant Geete is seeking re-election and Hatkanangale where farmer leader and Swabhiman Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS) founder-president Raju Shetti is seeking re-election -–this time as a “Mahaghatbandhan” candidate. In the 2014 polls, Shetti had contested and won as an NDA candidate.

Interestingly, at the time of writing this piece, there was intense speculation in the Mumbai Congress circles that it was trying to woo yesteryear Bollywod actress Urmila Matondkar as its candidate BJP’s sitting MP Gopal Shetty from Mumbai north constituency.

The next four weeks will see considerable heat and dust in Maharashtra, when Modi and other saffron alliance leaders on one hand and on the other Rahul Gandhi, Pawar and other “Mahaghatbandhan” will crisscross the State and campaign vigorously for their respective political formations.

All said and done, it is quite unlikely that the BJP-Shiv Sena will repeat its 2014 performance-–let alone accomplish the Maharashtra Mission-45 as desired by the ambitious Amit Shah.

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