Playing the Maha gamble
Overcoming its indecisiveness regarding a pre-poll alliance with Shiv Sena, BJP has finally made up its mind to go solo in Maharashtra in the upcoming Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in 2019. In a closed-door meeting in Mumbai on Monday, BJP president Amit Shah has reportedly told senior party leaders that they should be ready to fight the election in Maharashtra on their own. BJP's decision to stop playing ball with Shiv Sena comes in the backdrop of the latter consistently being critical of the BJP-led Central and state governments. After contesting the Lok Sabha election in a seat-sharing arrangement and Assembly elections independently in 2014, Shiv Sena joined the BJP-led state and Central governments but instead of remaining faithful to BJP and its policies, Shiv Sena chose to criticise the government much like an opposition party. Over the past four years, it has seldom missed an opportunity to embarrass the BJP leadership, mostly through comments and editorials in its mouthpiece the Saamana and sometimes by blunt remarks made by its leaders. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, BJP contested 24 seats and won 14 while Shiv Sena contested 20 seats and won only 7. BJP and Shiv Sena fought on their own in the October 2014 Assembly election in which BJP contested 260 of the 288 seats and won 122 while Sena fought 282 but won only 63. These results showed that while BJP's influence has grown, Sena is fast relegating to a declining force in the state. Ever since it became part of the government at the Centre, Sena started playing hardball in the hope that it will make BJP accept a formula of seat-sharing in which Sena would concede more seats to BJP in the Lok Sabha election while BJP should spare more seats for Sena in the Assembly election. But the BJP leadership never saw the reason for giving in to Sena's pressure tactics. Now, Shah has reportedly told his party workers that the party should begin preparations to contest all 48 Lok Sabha seats and 288 Assembly seats in Maharashtra. BJP's strategy is to contest the upcoming election in the state as a resurgent force and build networks in all the constituencies in such a manner that even if Sena joins hands with other major opposition parties like Congress and NCP under a mega alliance, BJP should still be able to trounce them. For this, Shah has asked party leaders to deploy at least 25 party workers in each booth to interact with voters and inform them about the government's schemes. Congress and NCP have already arrived at an understanding that after giving the smaller parties some seats where they are strong, the remaining seats should be divided between the two parties on a 50:50 basis. In the 2014 Assembly election, NCP had contested 287 seats and won 42 with a poll percentage of 18,10 while Congress contested 278 seats and won 41 with a poll percentage of 17.96. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, however, NCP contested 21 seats and won 4 while Congress fought on 26 seats and won 2. Though NCP and Congress could not post a heart-warming result in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, they fared better in the Assembly elections that were held a couple of months later both in terms of the number of seats they won and the percentage of votes they polled. An alliance between the two parties will surely help them post a better result than the elections last time around. Sena has already declined the possibility of joining the Congress-NCP alliance on ideological grounds.
Despite its growing influence and higher poll percentage, BJP's decision to contest the Lok Sabha election solo in the state is both a bold and a risky call. In a high-stakes election which will determine whether the saffron party's tryst with power at the Centre was a one-off affair or it has come to rule India for at least another term, every single seat that it wins or loses will matter. For the first time since its alliance with Sena in 1990, BJP will have to depend entirely on its own resources in a multi-cornered contest in the state. Apart from the anti-incumbency factor and the growing opposition chorus that the government has not achieved anything significant during its five-year rule, BJP will have its former alliance partner Sena bemoaning about BJP rule both at Centre and in the state. But if things go as per the BJP's plan, contesting all the 48 seats in the state may result in the party winning more seats than it did in last Lok Sabha election. And, in that case, BJP's Maharashtra experiment may offset setbacks in other states.