First, there was comedy. And then some farce, as the Bharatiya Janata Party tried its best to overcome not just its Karnataka defeat, but the manner in which its so-called ally in the state and at the centre, the Shiv Sena, has ambushed it at various elections and by-elections in Maharashtra.
There was no reason why the BJP could not have given a ticket to the son of Chintaman Wanga, its deceased MP from Palghar Lok Sabha constituency whose death necessitated today's bypoll. Instead, BJP chose to put up a weakish Congress rebel Rajendra Gavit from the seat. It was clearly caught napping as Chintaman Wanga’s son Srinivas Wanga protested to Uddhav Thackeray about the injustice. The Shiv Sena’s response was to commandeer a seat that did not belong to the party and give Srinivas Wanga its own party ticket, without so much as a ‘by your leave’ to the BJP, which protested vociferously. But their appeals to the Shiv Sena fell on deaf ears.
In a tit-for-tat, the BJP decided to offer support to the NCP-Congress candidate Shivaji Sahane in Nashik in the elections to the Maharashtra Legislative Council from the local autonomous bodies constituency last week. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has adopted Nashik for development as a ‘Smart City’, and it was expected that his support to Sahane, who broke away from the Shiv Sena to secure a ticket from the NCP for this election, would effectively put the Sena in its place. BJP also hoped that their support to Sahane could be used as a bargaining chip in the Palghar bypoll. However, to BJP’s chagrin, not only did the Shiv Sena candidate Narendra Darade win the poll but a closer look at the votes polled by him reveals that the BJP’s attempts to get even with the Sena was defeated by its own party functionaries—there was substantial cross voting from among the BJP voters in favour of Darade. Seasoned politicians and journalists in Maharashtra are still sniggering over the incident.
Before Fadnavis had a chance to get over the shock of that defeat, Uddhav Thackeray released an audio clip of Fadnavis exhorting his party workers to go to any extent or any means, even using ‘saam, daam, dand, bhed’ to defeat the Shiv Sena in Palghar. Fadnavis has claimed the audio clip is doctored and released a fuller version of the same. But the entire episode, combined with the appeal of a minister in his cabinet to the Congress to support the BJP to defeat the Sena in Palghar, has led to not just raised eyebrows but also a good deal of speculation about the sudden collapse of the BJP ‘s famed ability to strategise and manipulate to win elections at every cost.
The BJP decided to offer support to the NCP-Congress candidate Shivaji Sahane in Nashik in the MLC elections, just to put the Shiva Sena in its place. However, to BJP’s chagrin, not only did Sena candidate Narendra Darade win the poll, but there was substantial cross voting from among the BJP voters in favour of Darade. Seasoned politicians and journalists in Maharashtra are still sniggering over the incident
Tussles over the Palghar and the Bhandara-Gondia bypolls have caused some heartburn among the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party as well, but they seem to have resolved their issues far more amicably than the BJP and Shiv Sena. It is now clear that the Congress and NCP, which had parted ways during the 2014 assembly elections, as had the Shiv Sena and BJP, have realised the folly of the separation and are now back in an alliance. NCP Chief Sharad Pawar gave the first formal indication of this when he said a few weeks ago that given the impending alliance, the Congress and NCP must contest one seat each in an equal division of the electoral pie. But the Congress’s heart was set on Bhandara-Gondia rather than Palghar, which former union civil aviation minister Praful Patel of the NCP has represented in the past. Patel was defeated by Nana Patole of the BJP in 2014 but Patole resigned his seat and quit the BJP to join the Congress, citing the anti-farmer policies of the Narendra Modi government at the centre.
According to sources, it was imperative for the Congress to run Patole from Bhandara-Gondia as a message to the BJP. For Patole was originally a Congressman and had joined the BJP when he realised Patel’s domination over the constituency would never allow him a future with the Congress, so long as both were allies. Unfortunately for him, the two parties have allied again just as he thought he was well rid of Patel’s influence over Congress leaders. But that was not all. A large chunk of BJP MPs today are former Congressmen who would win their seats on any ticket and sources say Rahul Gandhi believes he can break at least 30-40 of these MPs from the BJP and secure their return to the Congress. Having Patole re-elected to the Lok Sabha at this juncture was crucial to that plan, for it would have sent out a resounding message to the BJP.
However, Patel dug in his heels and refused to hand the constituency over to his long time rival. Leaders of the two parties then decided to field neither Patel nor Patole this time around. Patel is already a member of the Rajya Sabha and Pawar is said to have asked him to stand down in favour of a third candidate in Bhandara-Gondia, who is now being backed by Patole. Whatever the results of this bypoll, which is being supervised by Nitin Gadkari on behalf of the BJP, the constituency is likely to cause as much trouble between the Congress and the NCP during the 2019 election as Palghar has become a bone of contention between the Shiv Sena and the BJP. But the secular parties for now have resolved the issue with far more maturity than the saffron allies in Palghar.
Today, there is also less bitterness between the Congress and NCP and an exhibition of accommodation of each other’s interests, as seen from the fact that NCP spokesperson Nawab Malik swiftly contradicted party MP Majeed Memon’s claims on Rahul Gandhi becoming prime minister. During the Karnataka campaign, Gandhi had said he could become PM if his party got sufficient seats at the 2019 polls, to which Memon replied that the decision could not be unilateral and would have to be discussed by all allies. Malik lost no time in intervening to state that Sharad Pawar knew his strengths and limitations and had no problem with Rahul becoming PM. Since then, the Congress president has been amenable to tasking Pawar with weaving together all opposition parties, including those like Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal, who was absent at the swearing-in of Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy in Bangalore last week, and may have some reservations about the Congress.
But the bad blood between the Shiv Sena and the BJP continues to spill over with Sena MP Sanjay Raut, who managed Darade’s victory in Nashik, even threatening to offer support to the NCP-Congress candidate in Bhandara-Gondia. At the start of the bypoll campaign, the Patel-Patole stand-off had seemed very troublesome to Congress and NCP. But now the war of words between Devendra Fadnavis and Uddhav Thackeray threatens to destroy the Sena-BJP equilibrium forever. If their alliance survives the bypoll, it will just barely be held up by the fact that they have almost 18 months to go for the term of the Maharashtra government. Else expect the Maharashtra assembly elections to be advanced and held simultaneously with the Lok Sabha polls.
This story was updated at 10.25 am to reflect a headline change