A state of disarray

The Maharashtra by-poll results have thrown the state in a deeper morass

Dilip Chavre Mumbai

Maharashtra has been experiencing a strange political instability. Although the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance is weakening by the day, a cold war between the ruling Congress and National Congress party (NCP) is responsible for the uneasiness that has come to the fore in the two by-elections whose results were announced on February 19. The results are politically significant for a number of reasons. They also reflect on the
prevailing uncertainty. Described as a "failed state", Maharashtra is sinking
deeper into the morass created by the neglect it has been suffering from due to political callousness. 

For the first time, the confidence of Sena rebel and now revenue minister Narayan Rane has been shaken. Rane was feeling himself invincible but this aura is shattered with the Sena winning the prestigious Shrivardhan seat. On the other hand, the Sena has lost Naigaum in its Marathi heartland. This will have a telling effect on the BMC elections which are due a year after, in February 2007.

Politically, what happened in Shrivardhan constituency is quite illustrative of the lack of loyalty among our political parties, irrespective of their ideology (or lack of it).
The Shrivardhan by-election was caused because sitting Sena MLA Shyam Sawant, who was elected from Shrivardhan thrice on Sena ticket, resigned his seat as a staunch follower of Rane. After the victory in Malwan and Ratnagiri district by-elections, the Rane camp was overconfident of repeating the winning trend in Shrivardhan in Raigad district, which adjuncts Ratnagiri district. Shrivardhan has a substantial Muslim population and most of it has devoted its allegiance to AR Antulay who played a crucial role in the outcome of the by-election. Sena candidate Tukaram Surve has won but the credit should go to Antulay who once had described himself as the Sena's ambassador in Delhi.

The NCP was eyeing Shrivardhan as it was worried due to the Rane factor. Thanks to Rane, the Congress has become the single largest party in the assembly by winning four seats from the Sena in the by-elections. Congress has snatched the position from the NCP which felt it would equalise with the Congress by bagging Shrivardhan. But the Congress rejected the idea. Expectedly, the NCP didn't campaign in the constituency, earlier represented by the mercurial Antulay.

The other important factor in the outcome was the support extended by the Peasants and Workers party (PWP) to the Sena. In Raigad district, the PWP is still a force to reckon with. The patriotic appeals made by the Sena played a significant role in the election result. "Don't vote the elements shouting slogans like Pakistan
zindabad," Sena chief Bal Thackeray had thundered through the columns of
Saamna. Ultimately, all put together, the most important factor was the isolation of the Congress in general and of Sawant in particular.

The blame game has started in Shrivardhan. Many reasons are touted for the defeat of Sawant. The most intriguing is the outburst of Antulay against the NCP. Even before campaigning began, Antulay launched a broadside against the NCP, saying that the Congress did not want its support. Naturally, NCP workers were irate and their immediate reaction was to distance from campaigning. NCP worker Mohamed Ali Kauchali entered the fray. Later, it was explained that he was an independent. However, over 10,000 votes garnered by Kauchali certainly have made a difference for Sawant. This has provided a weapon to the Congress to create doubts about the NCP. Already, the two parties sharing power are most uncomfortable in each other's company. Shrivardhan is bound to deepen this uneasiness.

Antulay's detractors alleged that Antulay and Thackeray have a retained their friendship through the decades, notwithstanding the political differences between their parties. Traditionally, the Sena has been finding weak candidates to field against Antulay in Kulaba Lok Sabha constituency represented by Antulay. Thus, it is said that by instigating the NCP, Antulay ensured very early that Shyam Sawant would not receive the NCP support. Thus, the Congress wicket was weakened from the beginning. There is a backdrop to this. Antulay had fielded his nephew Mushtaq in Shrivardhan in the past but Sawant had trounced him every time. His critics feel this is the other reason why Antulay was not too thrilled by the prospect of Sawant winning the seat. Antulay did not lose an opportunity to attack NCP's Raigad leaders. Antulay was particularly critical of Civil Supplies Minister Sunil Tatkare, who helped him
in the Lok Sabha election.  Antulay's other target was NCP district leader Dattaji Khanvilkar. At every meeting he addressed in Shrivardhan, Antulay invariably taunted them both, reiterating that the Congress did not need the NCP support to
win Shrivardhan.

The PWP has nothing to lose by supporting the Sena. PWP leader Jayant Patil is eager to re-enter the legislative council. His term is expiring in July. As there is no prospect that he will be supported by the ruling side, he has pinned hopes on the Sena-BJP alliance for support. Antulay and the PWP have always hated each other. This is among the most important factors that worked against Sawant.

Fortunately for the Sena, its rank and file was intact in the constituency. It had not defected to the Congress like it did in Sindhudurg district. Sawant was unable to convince Sena workers that he was a victim of some injustice by the party of the Thackeray family. When he made such a claim, he was openly challenged by local Sainiks who said they would call on Thackeray and redress his grievance provided it was genuine. Sawant lost face and did not bother to meet the Sainiks again. This proved a decisive development. The Sena assessed the situation almost accurately and concentrated at Shrivardhan, leaving Naigaum for the Congress. 

The Sena had fielded Mumbai corporator Shraddha Jadhav against Congress candidate and Rane acolyte Kalidas Kolambkar in Naigau. Kolambkar has a vast network, built over the past 15 years. Jadhav was left to fend for herself. The Naigaum result has a special significance as it is most probably the last election in Mumbai before the BMC elections in early 2007. The Marathi heartland which the Sena had been claiming to be its turf has slipped away from its grip. The Sena will have to consider this factor while preparing its strategy for the civic polls. As the NCP wants a share of the pie, it did not play a spoilsport in Naigaum but neither did it campaign for Kolambkar.

True, the Congress has lost Shrivardhan. But given its politics, certain sections in the party are unable to hide their elation. They feel that Rane's winning spree has been halted by Raigad district. Therefore, he will not be able to make a claim that he is the sole leader of the Konkan region. Rane's cherished dream to don the mantle of chief ministership once again will have to wait, at least for now. If the Congress wrested Shrivardhan, opponents of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh would have used Rane to mount a bid for his removal. That danger is averted.

But the NCP is sulking and this is telling on the performance of Maharasthtra which was recently described as a "failed state" by a planning commission member. Power cuts, farmers committing suicides, open warfare, increasing corruption and a passive bureaucracy are some of the maladies which have gripped Maharashtra in recent years. It is a paradox that though there is no opposition to bring down the ruling coalition, political instability has pervaded every sphere of Maharashtra.  It is a sad commentary on Vilasrao Deshmukh, too, who is once again betraying his original carefree attitude that invited considerable flak for him after the 26/7 deluge last year for inaction. Incidentally, little has happened to prevent flooding of Mumbai in the coming monsoon.

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