Over the years, I have learnt to take the readings of my former colleague, now a full-time politician, Sanjay Nirupam, seriously. When he first quit the Shiv Sena to join the Congress, I had asked him what was the difference between the Sena-BJP and the Congress-NCP was. "Yahan (in the Congress) buzurgon ki bahut izzat hoti hai. Aisa na Sena mein hota hai, na hi BJP mein,'' he had said.
He gave me examples of men, past their prime, of no particular use to the party who were still treated with respect by the party high command. It was only 10 years later when BJP leaders like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi and the Sena's Manohar Joshi were so brutally put out to pasture that I realised what he had meant when he said that the Congress does not forget the contributions of its veteran leaders.
Now, as Nirupam emerges as one of the most articulate Congress spokespersons who has made many in the BJP and even in his former party bite the dust in various debates on television over the past months, I am brooding over what he told me last week about poll results in the country. And he might just be right. According to Nirupam, the confusion about poll results rests only in the minds of analysts and political parties. "The voter is not confused even one bit." For example, he quoted various poll outcomes, barring one in 2009 when the UPA surprisingly came to power for the second time but short of a majority on its own. Every election since BSP chief Mayawati swept to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 has seen a resounding victory for one particular party - the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh and then, of course, the BJP at the Centre, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. (Exception: Delhi assembly polls.) Every time a hung House was expected but each time the voter made a decisive choice. Nirupam tells me the same will happen in Maharashtra. But at this point of time, neither he nor I are capable of reading which party will romp home to victory.
My doubts arise because of the recent surfacing of posters of Gopinath Munde on behalf of the Maharashtra BJP. Marginalised by Nitin Gadkari and the RSS, at one time, before the rise of fellow OBC Modi, Munde had even sought to quit the BJP and join the Congress, but had not found the latter very encouraging in terms of suitable accommodation commensurate with his seniority in politics. Now the BJP in Maharashtra has become entirely Brahminical and, moreover, the two front-runners for the chief minister's post - Gadkari and Devendra Fadnavis - are from Vidarbha. Both facts are seen as a major disadvantage by even the BJP for Maharashtra is a Maratha-dominated state in terms of ruling parties and most Maratha leaders are either with the Congress or the NCP. As for the Shiv Sena, it has no disadvantage in terms of castes. When people vote for the party, they vote for Bal Thackeray and no one else. Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray is aware of this advantage. He has so far played his cards well by remaining adamant over the seat-sharing arrangement with the BJP that led the two parties to break their 25-year-old alliance.
That the BJP was quite unprepared for this is obvious from the fact that it is taking in even Congress rebels (in addition to those from the Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) . The BJP has even offered a ticket to Sanjay Deotale, a minister in the Prithviraj Chavan Cabinet, who barely a few months ago had contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket and lost to the BJP.
I agree with Nirupam that the final outcome, however, would depend on how each party runs its campaign. At the moment, the Sena and the Congress are the only two parties that have the advantage of a pan-Maharashtra presence. The influence of the BJP, the NCP and even the MNS is limited to certain pockets.
However, it is my opinion that the breakup of the BJP-Sena and Congress-NCP alliances was the best thing that could happen to the people of Maharashtra. For too long these parties have artificially propped up their strengths and received more than their due from the people. It is time the people of Maharashtra put these parties in their place.