| The first sign of chinks in the saffron armour in Maharashtra appeared with the exit of Narayan Rane-then the leader of the Opposition in the Assembly-from the Shiv Sena. As the pied piper of the Sena trooped out in July 2005 along with six other MLAs, it heralded the slow unravelling of the organisation. |
The Sena had barely recovered from this shock when Raj Thackeray, nephew of party supremo Bal Thackeray, staged an exit. Setting off a storm within the Dynasty, Raj raised a revolt against Uddhav Thackeray, who had taken over the mantle from his father. But unlike Rane, who defected to the Congress, Raj went a step further and formed his own political outfit, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), in March this year.
At this point of time, the Sena, which had lost several grassroots leaders, was suffering from a complete loss of faith in its leadership. The party had managed to cope with strongman Chhagan Bhujbal's defection, as it had other stalwarts as well as Bal Thackeray to fall back on. However, Thackeray's advancing age and desertions by bigwigs have now left the Sena without a strong leadership.
While the Sena was ailing under defections, the BJP suffered a stroke. The alliance in the state was orphaned after the untimely death of its mentor Pramod Mahajan in May this year. Says BJP leader Kirit Somaiya: "The Sena was split twice in one year and the BJP lost its stalwart, which affected the psychology of the alliance." At present the Congress, with 75 seats, is the biggest party in the state, followed by the NCP, with 71 seats. The unflattering defeat of the Shiv Sena-BJP combine in the recent Assembly by-elections has lodged the once-strong alliance in the dock. The Congress has won all of the six seats contested in the by-polls. Similarly, in the municipal council elections, the Congress, with 896 seats, was the biggest winner, the NCP bagged 832 and the BJP and Sena won a meagre 294 and 354, respectively. In the past eight years, despite being in the Opposition, the Sena-BJP alliance was regarded as a strong contender for power. However, the continuing trend is the steady disintegration of the saffron power base.
Another reason the saffron alliance has not been able to hold steady is constant infighting. Says Sena worker Prakash Malavde: "Even though Uddhav has been following Balasaheb, he has not been able to build a platform for communication among party workers and the general public." Similarly, in the BJP, state party President Nitin Gadkari has clout only in the Vidarbha region, while Gopinath Munde is seen as an urban leader with no influence at the grassroots level. With the Sena unable to hold on to its supporters, the BJP has stopped regarding it as the big brother in the alliance. When the Chimur assembly seat, which had been contested by the Shiv Sena, fell vacant after its MLA Vijay Waddettiwar defected to the Congress with Rane, the BJP lost no time in making a grab for it. The seat was then contested by the BJP and lost to the Congress, but the BJP refused to accept its folly. "Even though we lost, we got 55,000 votes from Chimur, where we had no voter base," says BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar.
The saffron alliance has also not been able to effectively raise issues as an opposition due to the lack of co-ordination between the partners. Congress minister of state Suresh Shetty feels that the Opposition is never prepared to address an issue in the Assembly. "Had Rane been in the Sena, we would have been a little worried. However, we now know that the Opposition is ineffective," he says.
Voters, too, seem to be favouring secular parties. "They have realised that communal politics is only gimmicks," says congress leader Sanjay Nirupam, who left the Sena in March last year. Thanks to the MNS, the Sena votebank is further divided. The MNS secured 28 seats in the municipal council elections in Khed, Nashik, Raigad and Dhule-mainly Sena holds-prompting Leader of the Opposition Ramdas Kadam to offer his resignation. While the Sena and the BJP are mulling over what went wrong, the Congress and the NCP have been capitalising on the loss of their opponents. "The Congress is using Rane as effectively as it can against the Sena. His clout in the state is unquestionable," says a Congress leader. Within one year, Rane has brought with himself many supporters. "It is profitable to switch sides rather than drown with an ailing party," explains Shetty.
The outcome of the municipal corporation elections, to be held in February 2007, will decide the fate of the Sena-BJP alliance. Everyone has been busy wooing voters. The Sena has even sacrificed its communal stand by sending Christmas greetings to Christian voters. The BJP feels it's going to win a majority. "After the Mumbai bomb blasts, Hindu voters who were with the Congress are returning to us," says BJP leader Vinod Tawde.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Front is confident of winning a big chunk in Maharashtra politics. Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and NCP chief Sharad Pawar have made many trips to the state. "We joke at times that with the way the saffron alliance is languishing, the Congress might be fighting the NCP in the elections," says Shetty. If the Sena-BJP alliance doesn't pull up its socks in time, it may not be long before the joke turns into reality.