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2019 Lok Sabha elections: How will Sharad Pawar’s NCP perform in Maharashtra?

he Sharad Pawar-led party’s vote share is going down with each general election in Maharashtra. Its tally came down to half — four seats (five after a bypoll) – in the 2014 elections

lok sabha elections Updated: Mar 15, 2019 01:49 IST
Faisal Malik
Faisal Malik

For the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the time is ticking, and the party symbol, a watch, couldn’t have been more apt.

The Sharad Pawar-led party’s vote share is going down with each general election in Maharashtra. Its tally came down to half — four seats (five after a bypoll) – in the 2014 elections. Aware of the ground reality, the NCP got its act together for the elections starting April 11, which will decide its relevance in the national politics as well as its future in Maharashtra. They are trying hard to get a double-digit number, an uphill task never achieved since the party’s formation in 1999. In the 2004 elections, their tally touched 11, but it included three seats won in other states too. Pawar wanted to contest, but opted out after pressure within the family over fielding Parth, son of senior leader Ajit Pawar, in Maval constituency in Pune district.

What do the efforts mean? Political analysts feel the NCP will perform better than the previous elections, but a double-digit number may still not be in its reach.

GAME PLAN

The NCP, which is contesting 22 seats, aims to win between 12 and 14 seats, for which it has been preparing since 2017. It will indicate the party is bouncing back after the rout in 2014 and prepare a base for the Assembly elections, which will be held six months after the Lok Sabha polls. The results matter more so for Pawar, as he will turn 83 by 2023 and may not remain as politically active. They will also indicate whether the Maratha strongman can play a significant role in the formation of the government in case of a hung Parliament, as he has played a major role in bringing the Opposition leaders from across the country together against Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government. “He has been playing a significant role in uniting political opponents. In case of a hung Parliament, he can emerge as an acceptable face to all,” said a close aide of NCP chief.

The NCP leadership is confident of achieving the target. “A double-digit tally should not be a problem. We are confident about it,” said Jayant Patil, state NCP president. “We carried out a Nirdhaar Parivartan Yatra, a statewide tour, during which we learnt of the issues people were grappling with. We will focus on those in our poll campaign.”

The NCP’s alliance with the Congress and other like-minded parties such as Swabhimani Paksha led by Raju Shetti, Samajwadi Party, Hitendra Thakur led Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA), Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) and Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), too, is likely to boost its prospects. “Our discussion on seat-sharing is in the final stage. It will minimise the division of secular votes. We will be able to put up a strong fight against the ruling BJP-Shiv Sena combine,” Patil said.

TOUGH ROAD

But the way to success may not be easy, given the unwillingness of senior leaders to contest the Lok Sabha polls. “Many of our senior leaders are not keen to contest the general polls, as all of them are interested only in state politics. This makes fielding strong candidates difficult,” said a senior NCP leader.

Former deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal and former ministers Dilip Walse Patil, Ganesh Naik, Rajesh Tope are among those who have expressed reservations in contesting general polls, he added.

The bigger issue is the credibility of the party, which was hit owing to its hobnobbing with the BJP since 2014. Pawar himself invited Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Baramati in November 2016. During the function, Modi said that Pawar taught him about politics.

Before that in 2014, the NCP declared unconditional support to stabilise the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government in the state. In September last year, one of the founders of the party, Tariq Anwar left the NCP, raising questions over the issue.

“Pawar’s credibility has always been in question. Be it with the BJP, which is currently in power, or the Opposition, when he [Pawar] was part of the ruling side. More importantly, he has maintained his position. The support base of the NCP has not changed. The 2014 elections were an exception,” said political analyst Prakash Bal.

The NCP’s performance is dipping – with nine seats in 2004, eight in 2009 and four in 2014 elections. Since 1999, its vote share, too, has reduced from 21.58% in 1999 to 16.12% in 2014.

INFIGHTING AND RURAL BASE

Internal rift is an issue the party is struggling with. Pawar had to hold meetings for two consecutive days in the last week to resolve differences among leaders from Thane, Kalyan and Satara constituencies. Pawar himself, too, faced the heat. Factionalism in Solapur NCP was one of the reasons why he chose not to contest from Madha constituency, after announcing his candidature. The Parth Pawar episode has also surprised partymen.

Since its inception, the NCP is regarded as a party with rural base. It has a strong presence in the cooperative sector and significant following in western Maharashtra. However, it is seen as a rural party with not much influence in urban areas. It is also not strong in Vidarbha. This presence was further reduced after it lost Lok Sabha seats such as Mumbai North East and Thane in 2014.

“With no substantial presence in urban areas, the electoral performance of the party remains limited. The NCP needs to overhaul its organisational structure in cities to improve its situation, else its growth in the state will remain limited,” Bal said.

THE CHANGING TIMES

The developments after the Pulwama terror attack changed the political scenario in the country, which seemed to be falling out of favour with the Modi government. The BJP is hoping to get benefit of the narrative around the Balakot airstrikes conducted by the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Pratap Asbe, a political analyst, said, “Until Pulwama attack, the Modi government was inching towards a difficult phase, but after the Balakot air strike, the situation has changed. Those who were criticising the Modi government have now started saying that we need a strong government. PM Modi has lived up to the expectations. So, the tide has changed once again as common man is too sensitive to national security. The NCP will perform better compared to 2014, but both the Opposition parties will also have to face the impact of this changed political scenario.”

The state NCP chief doesn’t agree. “The airstrike by IAF made people forget all issues such as unemployment and inflation, but only for a few days. It has allowed the BJP workers to be louder. The audit of the air strike done by the western media has brought down all enthusiasm and made people rethink about the goings on. PM Modi’s credibility has come in danger, which is why he is harping on the gallantry shown by our air force and trying to take advantage of the situation,” Patil said.

CORRUPTION, MNS

AND PAWAR PLAY

As an Opposition party, the NCP failed to corner the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government on issues such as corruption and agrarian crisis. The party, along with the Congress, levelled allegations of corruption against many ministers — Prakash Mehta for housing scam, Pankaja Munde for chikki and THR contract scam, Subhash Desai for impropriety in a land matter in Nashik – but could not take them to a logical end which could ultimately tarnish the government’s image. “Many senior NCP leaders were accused of serious corruption charges in the irrigation scam. Moreover, the arrest of their leader and party’s OBC face Chhagan Bhujbal pushed the leaders onto the backfoot,” Asbe said.

Bhujbal is accused of money laundering in the Maharashtra Sadan case, while Ajit Pawar and Sunil Tatkare are being probed for their role in the irrigation scam. Both have held the irrigation portfolio in the erstwhile Congress-NCP government.

The NCP was keen on taking the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) on board the Opposition coalition, which, according to NCP leadership, would have helped spilt the saffron votes. “The MNS will help in making the Opposition’s position strong in urban areas such as Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan-Dombivli, Pune and Nashik. There are some 25 Assembly seats which will be impacted, if Thackeray becomes part of the Opposition alliance. Despite repeated attempts, Congress leaders are wary that the MNS presence can disturb their vote base among the North Indian community,” said a former NCP minister.

The party is now looking at a tactical tie-up with the MNS. The latter may not contest the Lok Sabha elections, but support NCP candidates in areas where it has strong presence.

In exchange, it will share seats with the party in the state Assembly elections, said a NCP leader.

First Published: Mar 15, 2019 01:49 IST