- Congress will strengthen, regain its pre-eminent position
- Can take the help of smaller parties to form government
- Can win over MNS, if needed
- Will help cut down NCP more and force it to merge finally
- Needn't share plum portfolios
- The party stands a poor chance in a multi-cornered contest
- Severe anti-incumbency requires a joint fight
- Very small difference in voteshare between the Congress-NCP in LS results
- NCP can be reined in better in an alliance, outside it can create problems
- A subdued NCP can easily be dictated to
***Three days after taking oath as Union cabinet minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh flew back to Mumbai and spoke. He did not say much about his portfolio—heavy industries and public sector enterprises—but reiterated the 'Ekla Chalo Re' (Go It Alone) theme for the assembly election in Maharashtra, due before October. The Congress, he said, should sever ties with the Nationalist Congress Party and contest all the 288 seats of the state assembly on its own.
After Rahul Gandhi made it fashionable for the Congress to contest elections without allies in Uttar Pradesh, the theme has acquired a new upbeat tempo. A significant section of the Congress is keen to repeat the 'UP formula' in Maharashtra, the first state to have assembly polls after the party's 'national' success in May. The Congress in Maharashtra, down and out after a series of unpopular administrative decisions and lacklustre leadership for most of the last five years, is looking up. It delivered to the party high command 17 of the 26 LS seats it contested and brought around two Independents to the UPA The NCP, meanwhile, fared badly, winning just eight of the 22 seats it contested and being severely challenged in its own bastion of western Maharashtra.
Vilasrao, who first mooted the idea of going it alone in December, has found new converts both in New Delhi and Mumbai. District-wise meetings of party functionaries were organised in Mumbai this week to do a swot analysis, understand party preparedness at the local level and get a pulse of the local leadership. PCC president Manikrao Thakre, a close aide of Vilasrao, presided over the meetings. "We are now in the driver's seat," says a veteran Congress leader and minister. "The NCP is on the backfoot. This is the time to push our boundaries, because the Congress and NCP can grow only at each other's expense." Party leaders also know the damage Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena can do to the BJP-Shiv Sena vote. MNS contested 12 of the 48 Lok Sabha seats, won none but took away four per cent voteshare across the state and a whopping 21 per cent in Mumbai, denting the prospects of saffron alliance candidates. Now, MNS intends to contest all the 288 assembly seats.
However, even as the 'Ekla Chalo Re' theme gathers momentum, several factors can come in the way of Maharashtra replicating UP's success. In fact, the pro-alliance section in the Congress is quiet but confident that its view will prevail. Numbers show that the party's best chance at power in Maharashtra lies in its alliance with the NCP. Despite the difference in the number of Lok Sabha seats won, their voteshare was similar—19.6 per cent for the Congress and 19.3 per cent for NCP—and together they're ahead of the Sena-BJP by just four per cent. The alliance's Lok Sabha results, when disaggregated into approximately six assembly segments for each Lok Sabha constituency, show that the Congress will pick up about 82 seats and the NCP about 48. The Sena-BJP will together pick up some 128. MNS could get some 10-12 assembly seats.
Congress sources say it is imperative, after the good show in the Lok Sabha poll, to retain power in Maharashtra despite the fact that the party—and alliance—faces a deep anti-incumbency sentiment, a fact both Congress and NCP leaders admit. Pawar had broken away from the Congress to form his own party in June 1999, but having contested assembly elections independently, he tied up to form an alliance government in October that year. The alliance quite miraculously retained power in the October 2004 assembly poll. "There is a perception that Maharashtra has slid down in the last few years and is not doing as well as neighbouring states in agriculture, industry, infrastructure, foreign investment," says B. Venkatesh Kumar, political analyst and director, Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies.
Congress sources say party leaders now want to concentrate on the Hindi heartland and wouldn't want to rock the boat in Maharashtra. Besides, the party needs Pawar on its side, however grudgingly, to help make the numbers, in both Houses but particularly in the Rajya Sabha where the NCP has four MPs. The NCP leadership is groping for positive signals; if the Congress intended to sever ties, it wouldn't have given Pawar and Praful Patel their portfolios back. "It may not be an easy alliance, but there was an alliance and we'd like it to continue," says state NCP president and former state home minister R.R. Patil.
Though the fissures between the Sena and BJP are more than evident, and the MNS is barking away at their door, the saffron combine is keen to wrest power in Maharashtra. This is Uddhav Thackeray's best stab at the state's top job; he has to find a formula to contain cousin Raj and MNS. Sena sources say that the party might adopt a two-pronged attack now—one set of issues that will help blunt MNS in urban areas, especially Mumbai and Thane, and another set of issues in rural areas. The Sena-BJP leadership is taking heart from a simple imagery—when Lok Sabha results are put on a Maharashtra map, the entire middle section from west to east is saffron.
So, 'Ekla Chalo Re' may make for pleasant humming in New Delhi and Mumbai but it might be suicidal for the party if taken seriously.