The 2009 edition of the elections to Maharashtra Legislative Assembly, where 288 seats are up for grabs, promises to be different. There are many interesting facets to ensure that. The main thing is that each of the major players is going into the fray with troubles of their own.
One, the Nationalist Congress Party, if it does not breakaway from the alliance with Congress on lower seat allocation to it, would suffer the ignominy of contesting the lowest number of seats ever in it decade old history.
Two, the Congress would be on the stump on the presumption that it would improve on the results of the Lok Sabha and emerge the single largest party.
Three, the Shiv Sena forced into a situation of having to contain the potential impact of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which is fielding 125 candidates, is going to fight its battles on several fronts.
Four, the Bharatiya Janata Party, quite subdued after its debacle in the Lok Sabha polls which kept it in the Opposition with diminished strength, has to work up enough steam to make a difference to its future.
Five, for the first time since Sharad Pawar banded a rainbow coalition of several parties including the BJP in the mid-80s, a third front of 21 parties, is in the fray hoping to stymie all the mainline contenders. Add the MNS's intent to the recipe and you have the interesting broth.
Thus, after a long time, this election could be quite seriously a multi-cornered event.
To top it all, the two main alliances, the Congress-NCP and the BJP-Sena, have their own intra-alliance issues that have defied solution in the pre-poll run up. Their competitive intimacy has been alive, though the two marriages are tense, suspicious about each other hanging like a millstone on each neck.
It would not be a surprise, if in their time honoured ways, the Congress and the NCP, which share the same pedigrees and therefore, the same habits, waylay each others' nominees in several constituencies, silently, subtly and with telling effect. One-upmanship is in their genetic codes.
The BJP and the Sena, on the other hand deal with the need to win in different ways. The cadres which get people to vote, as distinct from just seeking their votes in a general way, just shift to seats where their own candidates are. That is less negative than the Congress and the NCP's internecine approaches.
All this makes for a possible unpredictable outcome. Should that transpire, it would not do Maharashtra much good because despite tall claims, even when they were relatively stable, the two alliances did not offer much of good governance. In fact, both the alliances, the BJP-Sena between 1995 and 1999 and the Congress-NCP since then, have been long on promises and claims and very poor on delivery.
Let us look at each party's worries.
The Congress does not want to assign an equal status to the NCP simply because the latter's leadership has an unreasonable fixation of wanting to be in the power matrix in New Delhi and has converted its raison d'etre into a useful necessity. The Congress would like the latter to merge with it, but not treat it as an equal.
The NCP is in quite a quandary of its own making. Ideologically and in terms of work ethics, it occupies the same space as the Congress and yet pretends to be different. Its one major strength is Sharad Pawar, easily the only man with a clear vision but hobbled by the choices he has made. The courage to unshackle himself from the Congress appears to be quite weak.
The Shiv Sena is no more the kind of tiger it once was. It is passionate about its purpose but weakened by its inability to reconvert its mercenary, rent-seeking leadership into socially purposive machine. This party is vulnerable to attacks from Raj Thackeray to an extent that Sena could be entrapped into being single-mindedly preoccupied by this enemy. That is conceding partial victory to the MNS even before the race starts.
The ally, BJP, like Sharad Pawar's NCP, is in a wilderness within its alliance. It does not get respect from the partner Sena, is not treated as an equal. It has been forever put on the back foot even in seat sharing which precludes from promising and ensuring growth for its own cadre in constituencies held by the partner. In BJP held seats, the Sena runs its politics as businesses for profit so fewer complaints are heard from there.
Together with the MNS, the Left plus Republican Party of India gang up can lead to wildcard choices. Each of these two entities has a potential to inflict damage on the other two major alliances but the extent of the impact would depend on the distinct characteristics of each of the 288 constituencies. The local equations, which come into play more strongly in assembly elections than they do in any Lok Sabha polls, would determine the outcomes.
That premise assumes that the anti-Congress, anti-NCP and anti-saffron brigade that has been put together by Ramdas Athavale who was miffed the NCP promise to make him a minister at the centre was not kept, and the Congress unwillingness to accommodate him, would stay the course. Each of the constituent of this grouping has varying and scattered strengths across the state.
So, at this point, when we are yet to know what the main talking points are going to be for each party, the candidates' lists yet to take shape, and the surprises they intent to spring, it would be difficult to guess the outcome. Regardless of all that, predicting it at any point in time before the electronic voting machines disclose the verdict would be foolhardy.