Of the four states that are headed for assembly elections in the coming months, Maharashtra is the one where the fight will be most keenly watched. That’s not to say that the polls in Haryana, Jharkhand or Jammu & Kashmir are unimportant — they’re not — but Maharashtra’s assembly with 288 seats is bigger than the other three put together. Besides, Maharashtra is the richest of all the Indian states and its importance for both — the Congress and BJP — cannot be over-emphasised. No one in the two parties or their allies in Maharashtra (the NCP for the Congress and the Shiv Sena for the BJP) will go on record but the fact is Maharashtra generates a staggering amount of funding for political parties. For the last 15 years (an yet unbroken tenure) the state has been run by an enduring alliance of the Congress and NCP, one that has been the main beneficiary of the funds that the state’s co-operatives, industries, traders and the realty business contribute to the political kitty.
But, if the last Lok Sabha elections are any indication, those funds, most useful during elections, may be drying up for the Congress. A party leader estimates that each year, the state contributes funds that run into several hundreds of crores of rupees but also points out that in recent years, especially towards the end of the UPA’s second stint at the Centre, the flow of funds from Maharashtra has shrunk drastically. That the Congress had trouble raising funds for its campaign this year is not a secret. Business and trade, the main contributors (largely through means that are not transparent) to political parties, have not backed the Congress and, even geographically, its other two big sources of funds — Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh (the latter because of the state’s bifurcation) — haven’t yielded as much as in the past.
In Maharashtra, the funds crunch that the Congress faces is real — so much so that my colleague and keen watcher of state politics, Shailesh Gaikwad, says it’s become a “poor party of rich people”. In the last Lok Sabha polls, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance swept 42 of the 48 Maharashtra seats and now the three-term-old Congress-NCP regime faces a big anti-incumbency swing among voters largely because of widespread allegations of corruption, mainly against the NCP. It also faces a fiercely combative opponent in the BJP-Shiv Sena combine.
The BJP wants to wrest Maharashtra away from the Congress not just because it’s in keeping with the party’s mantra of a ‘Congress-free India’ but also because, as a BJP top leader tells me, if it manages to do so it can choke the Congress by cutting off its lifeline, a not-so-subtle reference to the state as the Congress’s moneybag. Fighting Maharashtra’s assembly elections itself is an expensive affair. The same BJP leader says candidates have to spend nearly Rs 4-5 crore each to contest the polls.
The BJP believes it can still ride on the parliamentary election’s Modi wave in Maharashtra and, unlike in the Lok Sabha polls, where it won with Modi as a clear PM candidate, it is not even projecting a chief minister, which it probably would have had it not lost senior leader Gopinath Munde, who died in a car crash in June. The BJP also believes that it now has a controlling edge in its not-always-happy alliance with the Shiv Sena, with whom it has sparred over seat sharing as well as over the latter’s projection of its party boss Uddhav Thackeray as a CM candidate. There is also the matter of tackling the Sena’s breakaway faction, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The Congress-NCP alliance has not been without hiccups, either. That too has had its share of seat-sharing squabbles and charges and counter charges of scams.
Whoever wins Maharashtra’s elections, one thing is clear: it is often said that to win India, a political side has to win in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh; it can equally be said that to win elections, political parties have to ensure that they win in its wealthiest, Maharashtra.