With major parties like Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and BJP deciding to contest on their own, none is likely to get more than 100 seats. This could prove to be a bonanza for smaller parties and independents
The Assembly elections scenario in Maharashtra has spiced up after Thursday's turn of events. Balasaheb Thackeray's Shiv Sena (now led by his son Uddhav) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have split after spending 25 years together. At the same time, the ruling Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), who were together for about 15 years also called it quits. In short, every major political party will test its own strength, this time there would a four cornered contest and it would be very difficult for a single party to win 100 or more seats out of 288 seats.
Then there is Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), the Ramdas Athavale-led Republican Party of India (RPI) and smaller formations such as Raju Shetty-led Swabhimani Paksha, Mahadev Jankar's Rashtriya Samaj Paksha and Vinayak Mete's Shiv Sangram. But their combined impact would be limited to certain pockets. In fact, I would say that although Raj Thackaray has a higher profile, his party's influence may be limited to pockets in and around Mumbai, Pune and Nashik. He may find it difficult to even field suitable candidates elsewhere. I would even venture to say that on a state-wide basis, the RPI may be in better position to bargain than MNS (remember there are 53 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Tribes). All the smaller parties mentioned earlier will have similar pockets of influence.
During the 2009 Assembly elections, Congress fielded candidates on 169 seats while NCP on 114, Shiv Sena on 160, BJP on 119, Republican Left Democratic Front (RIDALOS) 200, MNS 145, Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) 281, Communist Party of India (CPI) 21, Communist Party of India (Marxist) CPI-M 19 and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) contested on one seat. There were 2,675 independent and other candidates in the ring during 1999.
There are 288 constituencies in Maharashtra, out of which 235 are for general category, 28 are reserved for Scheduled Castes and 25 for the Scheduled Tribes. Congress and NCP contested the elections under the banner of Democratic Front while Shiv Sena and BJP had their alliance (known as Yuti)
The Congress won 82 seats out of 169 and NCP got 62 seats, thus reaching the half way mark of 144 seats. On the other hand, Shiv Sena and BJP won 44 and 46 seats, respectively. RIDALOS got 14 seats while MNS won on 13 seats. The remaining seats were won by smaller parties and independents.
The election of 2014 will be an important test for the Sharad Pawar-led NCP. What many don't know is that the party has contested only one election (1999) on its own after breaking away from Congress. In the 1995 assembly election, it was a Pawar-led Congress (it was not split that time) that was in the fray, but had to concede defeat to the Shiv Sena-BJP combine. Shiv Sena with Balasaheb Thackaray as its leader, won 73 seats while BJP in the state, led by Pramod Mahajan-Gopinath Munde at that time, managed to get 65 seats. In that election, except Janata Dal and independents, no other party reached a two-digit figure.
Also, 2014 is the first time that all the parties, except NCP will contest without a real, mass leader. Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray is no more. Congress has lost its two-time chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, while Gopinath Munde died recently in a tragic road accident. In fact, the untimely death of BJP leader Munde is a big blow not so much to his party as to the Shiv Sena. Both Mahajan and Munde shared a close personal relationship with the Thackerays and has, time and again, managed to smooth over tensions in the equation.
In the absence of mass leaders of the first rank, people say Sharad Pawar has been left to fight with leaders from other parties who are way too junior and inexperienced. But times have changed and given their track-record and even this situation may not allow the senior leader to pull off a victory single handedly.
Now lets examine the strengths and weakness of all parties that are in the area....
The saffron party's main strength was always its charismatic leader Balasaheb Thackeray. Without him, Shiv Sena and its supporters may find the going tough. Although Shiv Sena still has its cadre intact, both in urban and rural areas, there is a vacuum caused by the absence of a mass leader and orator who can pull the crowd to election rallies.
Shiv Sena's weakness is the mild nature of its current chief Uddhav and his inexperience in dealing with senior leaders, both inside and outside party. This election would also tell us whether the third generation of Thackerays', especially Uddhav's son Aditya, is capable to handle leadership pressures.
Narendra Modi's historic win in the recent Lok Sabha election has boosted the morale of this party, which appears to feel confident of side-lining its saffron partner. Unfortunately, BJP also does not have a crowd-pulling mass leader. The present leadership is often described as 'second-rung' and so it will be more dependent on the 'behind-the-scene' strategy of BJP president Amit Shah and hope for campaigning by Prime Minister Modi.
There is reportedly a tussle for leadership of the Maharashtra BJP among state leaders such as Devendra Fadnavis, Vinod Tawde and Leader of Opposition Eknath Khadse, but a final call on the matter will probably be taken by Mr Modi through Amit Shah. Interestingly, Tawde, who was reportedly not in good books of Munde since past few years, has supported candidature of Pankaja Munde-Palwe, daughter of the deceased leader, for the chief minister's post. There is speculation that even Nitin Gadkari, currently union minister, could emerge as BJP's candidate for the post of CM after elections.
Prithviraj Chavan as chief minister has managed to maintain a clean image throughout his tenure. However, he was often labelled as 'in-efficient' even by his party's political partner, the NCP. Chavan, again, is not a mass leader. Narayan Rane, has been put in charge of the election in-charge, despite his open criticism about the CM and party leadership, but his influence too is dimming with every passing day. Mr Rane may even find it difficult to retain his own seat unless he secures total support from his own party and there is a multi-cornered contest. Ashok Chavan is experienced but is too deep in controversies like the Adarsh scam and paid news episode.
So, the grand old party would be dependent on its president Sonia Gandhi's ability to gather votes.
Sharad Pawar, the Maratha 'strongman', separated from Congress but had managed to form alliance and thus retain power in Maharashtra since 1999. His party leaders face the maximum number of allegations about corruption, including his nephew Ajit Pawar. Ajit Pawar's controversial 'oratory' techniques are also more likely to cause public outrage at the most inopportune times. Remember his insensitive comment about urinating into dams at the height of a major drought in Maharashtra that was killing animals and had led to several farmer suicides?
The NCP also suffers from the absence of a strong cadre base and capable second-line leaders. Many of its leaders are 'new age sultans' in their own territory, but cannot pull crowds outside. Chhagan Bhujbal may be the exception, but then he can do it more due to his 'social organisation' and not as NCP leader.
REST of the Parties
Raj Thackeray's charisma was nowhere to be seen during the recent Lok Sabha elections and even if there is some left, MNS would be restricted inside the triangle of Mumbai, Pune and Nashik. Athawale, Shetty, Jankar and Mete are also 'local leaders' who control specific areas and hence their influence as whole would also be limited like MNS.
However, in the absence of a clear majority for single party, these minnows would be in greater demand post election results.
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