Five months after the bitter contest to the Lok Sabha in which the BJP led by Narendra Modi decimated the Congress, the two sides will again lock horns in Maharashtra.
Though there are five prominent parties in the contest, the actual fight will be between the two national parties — the BJP and the Congress — and is, hence, especially significant for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
First and foremost, it is about perception and prestige. Maharashtra is the first major state to go to the polls since Modi assumed power at the Centre in May this year. Assembly polls in a couple of states should not signify as a referendum on the Central government’s functioning but, in this case, both pro- and anti-Modi forces would consider the Maharashtra election a vote on his first four months in power.
If the BJP wins, it will be touted as people’s endorsement of the Modi government. The BJP can claim the Modi magic is not on the wane. And it would mean Modi’s decision to get his close aide, Amit Shah, as BJP president has worked. It would also imply that the Modi-Shah duo has established complete control over the BJP. Modi can also claim credit for the BJP winning the state that is the birthplace of its parent organisation, the RSS. Only once before has this happened.
Second, the victory would mean Modi has struck another deadly blow against the Congress, which is still reeling from the crushing defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. He would also be able to cut-off the Congress’ main source of funds, which have come mainly from Maharashtra where it has been in power for the past 15 years.
In fact, more than Modi, it is the Congress which has a lot at stake in Maharashtra --- where it has lost only twice since the state was formed in 1960. Once in 1978, when Sharad Pawar broke away from the party and became chief minister for the first time at the head of a coalition government with the Janata Party, and then in 1995 when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance won power.
Retaining power by countering anti-incumbency of 15 years is a tough task for the Sonia Gandhi-led party. Losing the election would send the message that the Congress cannot stop the Modi juggernaut. This could further discourage the Congress rank and file and lead to an exodus from the party. The murmurs of protest against Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s leadership could grow louder.
There is more.
A loss could see the Sharad Pawar-led NCP walk out on the Congress. Pawar is angry with the Congress leadership for not handling important issues — from change of leadership in the state to sharing seats for the assembly polls — the way he had expected. After all, losing power in Maharashtra — the only state where his party has a base -- would also create problems for Pawar and his party of freelancers.
However, if the Congress-NCP pulls off a victory, it would be an entirely different story. The Congress could then get more aggressive and even find other parties rallying behind it to counter Modi.
“The BJP-led front winning Maharashtra polls would be seen as an indication of Modi’s growing influence. He would then have the political and the financial capitals of the country under his control. For the Congress, it’s a must-win situation. Losing the state would come as a major blow. Its space in the political spectrum will further shrink,” opined political analyst B Venkatesh Kumar.
Small wonder then that, with such high stakes involved, the Maharashtra election could turn out to be one of the most fiercely contested in India’s history. The show begins now.