MUMBAI, Maharashtra — Haribhau Bagde, the Speaker of Maharashtra legislative assembly has secured a somewhat unusual distinction: he has accepted 26 MLA resignations, 18 in the last year alone, including the Leader of the Opposition Congressman Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil.
Vikhe Patil joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in June this year, and has since become the Minister of State for Housing, his son Sujay is now a Member of Parliament from the BJP, and that — in a nutshell — is the challenge facing Maharashtra’s opposition parties in the soon to be announced Maharashtra state elections.
The opposition is struggling largely because the ruling party has poached almost every leader who could have given the BJP a fight.
“It is a record that so many MLAs tendered their resignation during the term of one assembly,” Bagde told local Marathi channel ABP Majha recently. “If an MLA decides to resign, there is no way to stop him and no one has the right to stop him.”
As the campaign in Maharashtra gathers steam, here is a look at the key players and how they are placed.
One of the youngest chief ministers in India, Devendra Fadnavis’s second run for Chief Minister marks the first time a political party in Maharashtra is going into an election with a Brahmin face. Even the Shiv Sena had to replace Manohar Joshi, a Brahmin, and bring in Narayan Rane a Maratha as the state chief minister ahead of the 1999 assembly election.
In the past five years, Fadnavis has emerged as the undisputed leader of the BJP in the state, and has successfully handled tantrums of BJP’s alliance partner Shiv Sena. The alliance’s stellar show in Lok Sabha election has only deepened the impression that Fadnavis exercises complete control over the party in the state.
However, in July 2019 Chandrakant Patil, a senior minister in his cabinet, was elevated to the post of the BJP’s state president in Maharashtra. Patil’s rise has clearly affected Fadnavis’s dominance. While the Chief Minister has repeatedly stated that he will remain in his post after the election, Patil has refused to endorse this. Stating instead that the Chief Minister will be chosen after the election.
Thus far, Fadnavis has managed to cut all competition to size; except for Patil. Patil’s chief ministerial ambitions are an open secret in the BJP circles. Fadnavis is likely to be back at the helm if BJP repeats its performance in the last assembly election, but even those close to CM admit that with Patil around, anything could happen post-election.
Bal Thackeray’s son and heir to his mantle as the chief of the Shiv Sena, Uddhav has had a tumultuous relationship with his senior coalition partner BJP over the last five years.
He was caught off guard after 2014 assembly elections when Sharad Pawar declared unconditional support to the BJP which was 22 short of the majority mark in the state assembly. The Maratha strongman’s move reduced the bargaining power of Shiv Sena to zero but the BJP inducted the Shiv Sena’s MLAs into the Devendra Fadnvis cabinet anyway.
Since then, the Shiv Sena has spent five years attacking the government from within, and constantly threatening to withdraw support.
In 2018, Udhhav had announced that his party would contest all upcoming elections on its own only to eat his words on the eve of Lok Sabha polls earlier this year. The Shiv Sena chief also announced that his party will get half the total number seats in the Maharashtra state assembly this election, and may even aim for the post of Chief Minister; an expectation that appears unlikely.
“Why would we concede 144 seats when we had more than the double MLAs that they had in the last election?” said a BJP minister seeking anonymity to speak freely. Amit Shah, the minister said, “had made a fool out of the Shiv Sena.”
The BJP has already begun preparations and zeroing down on candidates in all 288 seats across the state, suggesting they just might go it alone in this election.
“We are ready to contest on all 288 seats and our workers and leaders are more than ready for that,” a senior BJP leader said.
The NCP supremo is putting up a brave face but the large scale defections from his party have clearly rattled the four-time chief minister of the state.
Just last week, a descendant of Maratha warrior king Shivaji and NCP MP from Satara Lok Sabha Udayan Bhosle shifted to BJP. If NCP and BJP insiders are to be believed, except seven to eight leaders close to Pawar, the loyalties of everyone else in the NCP are up for grabs.
The NCP and the Congress are likely to fight this election together, but a senior NCP leader admitted that the party — at best — is hoping to retain between 30 and 35 of the 42 seats that they won last year. For context, the Maharashtra assembly has a total of 288 seats.
With the election barely a month away, the nephew of Bal Thackeray and president of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena is conspicuous by his absence.
In September, Thackeray announced a joint opposition morcha against Electronic Voting Machines. A day-long inquiry by the Enforcement Directorate, now reduced to a mere plaything of the ruling BJP, put paid to those plans. Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit even took a dig at Raj, saying Thackeray’s silence was an example of how people stop talking after an ED notice.
MNS did not contest Lok Sabha polls, but his unique rallies targetting the BJP attracted much attention. Rumours are afloat the MNS might not contest the election but Raj is likely to clear his intentions once the dates of election are announced.
The grand old party appears to be in tatters as its leaders aren’t expecting “more than 20-25 seats” this election.
“Even 25 is a big number. Realistically even 15 would be enough for us. Each of our units, be it the Mumbai unit or district units are divided into camps,” a senior Congressman and former cabinet minister admitted. “People from our party will get elected on their individual strength and not because of the party.”
The Congress has a new state president and four working presidents after the drubbing it received in the Lok Sabha polls, but there is no change at the district, block and city level.
The successful alliance between Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi and Assauddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen was one of the more intriguing side-plots of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In Aurangabad, the AIMIM’s Imtiyaj Jaleel beat all contenders to become a Member of Parliament. Ambedkar contested from two seats but lost both.
The assembly elections could have given both parties an opportunity to deepen this alliance, but the AIMIM has put paid to these plans. The AIMIM’s Jaleel announced the end of the alliance with Ambedkar last week. Ambedkar has reiterated that he is in talks with Owaisi, however, the AIMIM president also declared that Jaleel’s statement was the party stand.
“Every political party has the right to stand on its own,” Ambedkar told HuffPost India. “We tried to develop Muslim leadership in the state and gave them a platform. But now it seems they want to have an independent way of life which is fine.”
As things stand, Owaisi, who has two MLAs in the outgoing assembly, is better placed than Ambedkar in the upcoming polls.