The Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance that had a spring in its step after the recent Lok Sabha elections seems an altogether different beast as assembly elections are held in in Maharashtra today. The pace at which electoral fortunes have reversed in the state has been startling even by the swirling standards of Maharashtra politics. The Congress-NCP finds itself being tripped up by rebel candidates after it went ahead and denied a ticket to sitting legislator and minister Sunil Deshmukh in favour of Rajendra Shekhawat, President Pratibha Patil’s son. Mr Deshmukh’s suspension has added more power to the elbow of the rebels who now seem confident of wresting several prestigious seats from the combine. All this will be music to the ears of the Shiv Sena-BJP combine that found itself in tatters after the Lok Sabha elections.
In these polls, the spoiler, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Raj Thackeray, has worked to the advantage of the Congress-NCP combine. With a stunning 21 per cent vote share in the last elections, Mr Thackeray could spell the difference of who takes over the state after these polls. He has grabbed the old ‘Maharashtra for Marathis’ issue right from under the Shiv Sena’s nose and added his own brand of muscle power to it. In a state where unemployment levels are high, the move against migrants has touched a chauvinistic chord. The Congress-NCP alliance has not been able to come up with any issue that could turn the tide. The Shiv Sena-BJP formation is hoping that it will gain by default. Not one party has raised the many problems of urban decay that are pulling Mumbai under or the problem of farmers’ suicides and poor agrarian output across the state. The MNS has turned the tables on the Shiv Sena so deftly that today the one-time Sena wannabe is slowly becoming the place for the more noisy Sainiks.
But the alarming part is that much of the campaigning has been adversarial and negative at a time when, across the nation, issues like governance and development have galvanised voters. The campaign so far seems more like a damage containment exercise with parties desperately trying to keep their flock together. As things stand now, it seems fairly likely that the MNS will cut into the votes of both sides. This means that after having been written off earlier, it will be Raj Thackeray and his divisive brand of politics that will emerge as a key player in the state. This does not augur well for the cosmopolitan character of a city like Mumbai.