As Maharashtra's main political players, the Congress-NCP alliance and BJP-Shiv Sena combine, brace for the Lok Sabha and subsequent state assembly polls this year, they would have to contend with a new opponent, the Aam Aadmi Party, which has decided to take the electoral plunge in a big way.
Arvind Kejriwal's AAP, which made an electrifying electoral debut in the Delhi polls forming its government in the very first outing, has set up its units in all 35 districts of Maharashtra and is trying to penetrate deeper to taluka level and beyond.
AAP, with its core comprising the volunteers of Anna Hazare's India Against Corruption movement, already has a significant potential support base in the state not new to aggressive social activism, courtesy the Gandhian and others like Medha Patkar.
"We have put in place structured committees in all the 35 districts in the state. In some talukas too, we are building a base, while we are working to set up committees at polling booth level," AAP leader Mayank Gandhi, a key member of Team-Kejriwal said.
The party, which galvanised ordinary voters, particularly the youth through its aggressive and sustained campaign through the social media, has already constituted 14 state-level committees for managing the elections.
These committees include experts in media management, volunteer training, manifesto drafting among others.
The party is, however, yet to decide on the number of candidates it would field in the Lok Sabha polls from the state which sends 48 MPs, second to Uttar Pradesh (80).
When asked about the leadership issue in the state, Gandhi said AAP has a collective leadership with Anjali Damania as the state convenor.
"All our leaders at the district level are mass leaders who have been working in their areas for a long time. AAP is attracting not just professionals like Meera Sanyal (Royal Bank of Scotland CEO) and Sameer Nair (former chief executive of Star TV) but also dabbawalas, hawkers and autorickshaw unions," he said.
The two major alliances had collectively won 45 of the state's 48 Lok Sabha seats in 2009. While the Congress-NCP combine had pocketed 25 seats, Shiv Sena-BJP had bagged 20.
Though only time will tell how AAP fares in the polls, leaders of the Congress-NCP alliance do not give the year-old political outfit much of a chance because of lack of a strong local leadership.
When asked to comment on AAP's plans in the state, Nawab Malik, NCP spokesman told PTI every party has the right to expand its base.
"All elections are a challenge irrespective of who is the opponent. AAP-type experiments have happened many times in the state. People look for leaders who work among them, leaders need to have a connect with the grassroots rather than just do the talking.
"Maharashtra politics is about farmers issues, co-operative movement, educational institutions which have helped politicians to stay connected with the people. Past experiences show political waves across the country have stopped in the state like the Janata Party wave and VP Singh wave," he said.
The principal Opposition – BJP-Shiv Sena alliance – is hoping to capitalise on the charisma of Narendra Modi and the controversy surrounding Adarsh scam and accusations of grave irregularities in irrigation schemes during the Congress-NCP rule to return a sizable number of MPs from the state and also return to power in Maharashtra.
The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance had formed its government after the 1995 elections.
With the exception of the saffron alliance's rule between March 1995 and October 1999, and July 1978 and February 1980 when Sharad Pawar broke away from Congress and formed his Progressive Democratic Front government with the opposition parties, the state has always had a Congress or Congress-led dispensation.
"Modi's projection as BJP's prime ministerial candidate can make some difference but, as of now, we don't see a miracle happening," a Congress leader said, citing the party's long stint in power in the state.
"Maharashtra is a multi-party polity and votes get divided among four major parties -- Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and BJP. RPI factions, Samajwadi Party, JD(S) and BSP also have influence in certain pockets. Now, there is MNS which is aiming to expand its base. All eyes will be on AAP after its stunning debut in the Delhi polls," political observers say.
BJP, upbeat after its recent success in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, is hoping to repeat it in both Lok Sabha and Maharashtra assembly polls.
"For us Maharashtra is an important state. In 1999, Sena-BJP won 33 out of 48 seats which helped NDA form its government at the Centre. We are aiming at repeating that performance and even better it. Our target is 33-35 seats," a senior BJP leader said.
As part of its strategy to win maximum seats, BJP is in the process of bringing smaller parties like Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) and Shetkari Sangthana, who have influence in one or two seats, in the alliance.
"There are some seats BJP or Shiv Sena find difficult to win despite best efforts like Sangli where we can support Shetkari Sangthana," the leader said.
According to BJP leaders, the issue of factionalism in the state unit has been sorted out and the impressive turnout at a recent rally of Narendra Modi showed that the party worked unitedly.
"We were able to project a cohesive face. In the Lok Sabha elections, Modi will be the face of the party and hence there is no question of projecting anyone at the state level. The assembly elections are many months away," he said.
Though BJP leaders like Nitin Gadkari have mooted the idea of a grand BJP-Shiv Sena-MNS alliance, there has been no forward movement in that direction.
"Nobody has approached us (for alliance) nor have we approached anyone. We are in the process of finalising the list of Lok Sabha constituencies and candidates. Even though we are yet to finalise the number of seats to be contested, it will be definitely more than 12 which we fought in 2009," a senior MNS leader said.
"Our concern is to strengthen our cadre in the entire state and empower the voters who love Raj Thackeray. His agenda is Maharashtra and not national politics," he said when pointed out that saffron votes split because of multiple parties.
Criticising the Sena-BJP alliance for its "failure" to take on the ruling Congress-NCP combine aggressively, he said if at all a change has to happen in Maharashtra it would be because of peoples' anger against the non-performing government.
"The principal opposition parties have failed to highlight the shortcomings of the government. MNS feels it is a good alternative to Shiv Sena-BJP alliance," he said.
Congress leaders feel that despite the anti-incumbency factor the ruling alliance's network of cadre in sugar co-operatives, co-operative banks and educational institutions would stand them in good stead.
"Besides, Opposition in the state is weak and divided. BJP and Shiv Sena are faction ridden," they said, adding the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assembly polls would test the mettle of Uddhav Thackeray as a leader as Shiv Sena would be going to hustings for the first time in the absence of Bal Thackeray.