During the run up to the 2009 assembly elections, the BJP’s Gopinath Munde had paid a discreet visit to the home of former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. The Shiv Sena had been playing hard to get and the NCP too had been demanding more seats from the Congress. Munde, as Deshmukh told me later, sought the Congress’s help to cut the Sena to size. “He brought a message from his party leaders to our high command: Don’t give in to the NCP. If you do we will be compelled to give in to the Sena. Dig in your heels and we will also press the Sena into submission’’.
The Congress did play hard to get at that time and the NCP backed off. So did the Sena, conceding a couple more seats to the BJP — which then went ahead to win two seats more than the Sena and wrest the post of leader of opposition from its ally.
Deshmukh and Munde had been long-time friends though they were on opposite sides of the political spectrum and hailed from adjoining constituencies, and so could pull off that particular deal. The conspiracy now seems to be between old family friends — the Pawars and the Thackerays. Both parties are fighting a battle for existence this election – the NCP could be wiped off the map of Maharashtra if it fails to get back to power and the Sena knows the BJP has made up its mind to cut its ally down to size and shed its dependence on the party in the future. Sources also tell me that it is no coincidence that Uddhav Thackeray has suddenly developed a tough exterior and that Sharad Pawar is almost invisible, barring his rallies, in the run-up to the elections. There seems to be an understanding between the two parties that they must restrict the two national parties from growing in the state and there can be no better moment than now to ensure that.
If the BJP had not been hammered in the post-May 16 by-elections, the party may have junked the Sena. But the bypoll results clearly show that the Modi mandate cannot be taken for granted by the BJP — and in addition, it is handicapped by the lack of a suitable chief ministerial candidate, unlike in the Lok Sabha where they had a clear leader. Most polls show that the two most popular chief ministerial candidates belong to the Congress (Prithviraj Chavan) and the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) in that order with the BJP and NCP leaders at the bottom of the pile. So obviously the BJP would like to stick together with the Sena even if it is unable to bully Uddhav into submission.
For the NCP, Chavan’s clean image is a big boost. The BJP has already discovered that it can neither target Chavan for any misdemeanour nor find a single Congress name among the ministers who might be indicted for corruption. But they have plenty of ammunition against the NCP, particularly Ajit Pawar — it is no wonder then that Ajit recently abused Chavan who is single handedly responsible for destroying his reputation, even if that expose achieved little in the end. To defeat the Congress, the BJP then needs it to remain in an alliance with the NCP and perhaps that is the reason, I am told, why Chavan is keen to go it alone at these elections, though the Congress high command will not allow that now that the BJP has decided it is not pulling away from the Sena.
But what blows my mind this election season is the NCP’s three-way game – an alliance with the Congress, and playing on both sides of the razor’s edge with the Sena and the BJP — by tacitly signalling support to the latter’s moves to restrict the Sena. Standing on two stools is dangerous enough. Climbing a three-legged one with a double-edged sword in hand defies the imagination of the extent of injury that such an act may inflict.