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Congress faces Modi swing; Raj bouncer for BJP

Ketaki Ghoge, Hindustan Times  Mumbai, February 03, 2014
First Published: 00:21 IST(3/2/2014) | Last Updated: 17:35 IST(18/2/2014)

Even as Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi gave his first televised interview on Monday, the prime ministerial candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Narendra Modi, presided over the completion of 51 years of patriotic song ‘Aye Mere Watan ke Logo’ in Mumbai at a function organised by BJP legislator and well-known builder Mangal Prabhat Lodha. In the presence of singer Lata Mangeshkar, Modi later addressed the crowd of around a lakh that filled the Mahalaxmi Race Course ground.

This was Modi’s third visit to Maharashtra in 30 days. The Gujarat chief minister has addressed a mega rally in Mumbai, where a large chunk of the Gujarati community is a loyal votebank for him. At a smaller function at Maratha king Shivaji’s erstwhile capital Raigad, he paid tributes to the state’s most popular historical figure.

Modi knows the importance of Maharashtra in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. With 48 seats, the state could tilt the tide for the saffron combine and help him make a bid for the top job. But, that will take more than a wave among the urban middle class that is fed up with the Congress-NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) government of the last 15 years.

Past trends show that LS seats get evenly distributed between the saffron combine and Congress-NCP. In 2004, Sena-BJP won 25 to Congress-NCP’s 22; in 2009, Sena-BJP dropped to 20 as Cong-NCP improved to 25. This time, however, the fight is not just between the Congress-NCP and the Shiv Sena-BJP, though that would have given the latter an upper hand. Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have squared the pitch.

“The state BJP leadership is split between senior leaders Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari. There is also no clear communication between the BJP and Sena as existed in 1995,” said analyst B Venkatesh Kumar.

The politically estranged nephew, Raj, who has inherited more than just his late uncle Bal Thackeray’s mannerisms, has decided not to join hands with the saffron combine despite showing admiration for Modi. Following the AAP’s success in Delhi, he wants to place his party as the third alternative, hoping to be kingmaker in the LS polls and later do an AAP in the assembly. “Why do you need AAP, when Baap (father; referring to own party MNS) is here?” Raj asked recently.

Read: Raj criticises Narendra Modi for ignoring Bal Thackeray

If 2009 is an indication, he will damage the saffron combine — MNS had then won no seats, but each of its nine candidates got over 1 lakh votes, decisively contributing to the Congress-NCP victory in the Mumbai-Thane-Nashik belt. 

But will the Congress be able to reap the benefits of a divided opposition?

“Caught between the devil and the deep sea,” is how a senior Congress leader described the party’s position, hemmed in between the Modi factor and the AAP. The party hopes its pro-farmer policies — sugar subsidy, drought management, sops to onion growers — besides the UPA’s schemes would give it a bailout, especially from the 48% rural vote. In urban areas, the AAP effect has seen the government run for cover and announce copycat sops like a 20% power tariff slash.

The Sena-BJP is stronger in urban areas, and its recent tie-up with a maverick Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS) is a bid to make inroads into the rural areas, especially NCP strongholds.

On record, the Congress says there is no scope for the AAP. “We don’t really see AAP making any inroads in Maharashtra. There could be the MNS factor,” said state Congress president Manikrao Thakre.

The party has a bigger issue at hand: relations with ally NCP. The Sharad Pawar-led party is peeved with the way the Congress top brass in Delhi is handling seat-sharing. “There is no clarity from the Congress about the coalition in the upcoming polls. We want to contest together, but there are indications from them that they want to go solo,” said NCP national spokesperson Nawab Malik.

But a Congress minister, refusing to be named, said, “If we strategise well, we can get 20-25 seats. But, we have to work with the NCP and focus on winnability as the sole criteria for the ticket. Right now, no one knows what’s happening. And the state leadership lacks shrewd strategists, with former chief minister Ashok Chavan sitting on the bench and the death of Vilasrao Deshmukh.”

Ever since the “well-intentioned and clean” Prithviraj Chavan has taken over as CM, relations between the allies have gone from bad to worse. Chavan, now increasingly being equated with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for all the wrong reasons, has also not been able to win over the support of all party legislators.

A divided Congress-NCP house will make it difficult for the parties to retain even traditional bastions. Their sole hope is to contest together without tripping each other’s candidates and leverage the MNS factor.

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