Debating India

NCP

Battle for survival

Saturday 11 September 1999, by BAVADAM*Lyla

The future of the Nationalist Congress Party hinges crucially on its electoral performance this time in Maharashtra, the home State of its leader Sharad Pawar.

LYLA BAVADAM

in Mumbai

FOR the first time in democratic India, all the major political parties have begun to acknowledge the inevitability of coalition governance at the Centre. It is this factor that gives some hope to the newly formed Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The party’s survival is by and large linked to its showing in Maharashtra in the Lok Sabha elections. Sharad Pawar, its leader and former Union Defence Minister is playing a high stakes political game.

Of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats, the NCP will contest 39 and support the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) in one. It has offered eight seats to its partners in alliance collectively called the Progressive Democratic Front (PDF), who include the two f actions of the Republican Party of India (RPI), the Janata Dal (U), the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and Sharad Joshi’s Swatantra Bharat Party.

Pawar is a shrewd politician, but this time he faces serious disadvantages. First, he lacks the organisational infrastructure of his rivals. Second, in order to build his party he had to attract influential Congressmen, but very little time was available for him to do this - hardly two months, between the formation of the NCP and the beginning of the election campaigns. And third, compared to its opponents in the State, the NCP is strapped for cash.

Despite these shortcomings, Pawar asserts that he will win a majority of seats in the State. Relying on his 32 years’ experience in public life, vast rural support base and tremendous grasp of issues pertaining to the State, Pawar hopes to capitalise on the voters’ disillusionment with the four-and-a-half-year-old Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party rule, marked by scandals and corruption charges.

The saffron combine relies largely on the division of votes between the Congress(I) and the NCP. It also hopes to cash in on Prime Minsier Atal Behari Vajpayee’s public meetings in the State. As a BJP source admits, "Atalji’s public meetings here are very important to us."

Both the NCP and the Shiv Sena-BJP do not consider the Congress(I) a formidable opponent because of its weak local leadership. A source in the NCP said: "In the 1998 Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra, 44 per cent of the vote went to the Congress(I). Aft er splitting away from the Congress, we expect to get at least 22 per cent of that share. The Shiv Sena-BJP had 42 per cent of the vote at that time. This time the NCP will take away about 15 per cent of that vote. Plus we will get 4 per cent of the vote through the RPI. Our tally thus comes to 41 per cent. The coalition government’s tally drops to 35 per cent." Thus the fight in Maharashtra is between the Shiv Sena-BJP and the NCP and its allies, the NCP leader argues.

Pawar’s power in the State was amply demonstrated in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections when the Congress(I) and its allies won 37 of the 48 seats, compared to the 15 seats it had won in 1996.

Pawar himself attributes the 1998 victory to "the hatred that the people had developed for the Shiv Sena and BJP" as well as to the popular acceptance of the alliance between the Congress(I), the RPI and the S.P.

Immediately after forming the NCP, Pawar set about roping in Congress(I) members. Fifteen MPs (14 from the Congress(I) and one from the RPI) of the dissolved Lok Sabha joined Pawar right away. This gave the NCP an edge.

Maharashtra has six district regions - western Maharashtra, north Maharashtra, Marathwada, Vidarbha, Konkan and Mumbai. The highest number of Lok Sabha seats, 12, are in western Maharashtra, which has the rich and powerful sugar cooperatives that have tr aditionally supported the Congress. In fact, this is the only region where the NCP is engaged in a clear tug-of-war with the Congress(I). In an effort to consolidate his party’s position, Pawar won over four of the 11 Congress(I) MPs from here. In the co nstituencies of the remaining seven, including Baramati which is Pawar’s constituency, the NCP has a strong winning chance, except perhaps in Karad.

North Maharashtra has six Lok Sabha seats, of which the Congress(I) won five last time. The region has three reserved constituencies. Two Congress(I) MPs form this region joined Pawar’s party. While Dhule, Nasik and Malegaon (where the Janata Dal (U) has a strong candidate) are safe constituencies for the NCP, the party will face a tough fight in Nandurbar, Jalgaon and Erandol where the fight is between the BJP and the Congress(I).

Marathwada has eight Lok Sabha seats, of which the Congress(I) won six and the BJP two in the last elections. Pawar won over the Congress(I) MPs from Hingoli and Parbhani. The NCP appears to be strong in Beed and Jalna, where the BJP member in the dissol ved Lok Sabha, who has not been renominated, is believed to be working against the party candidate. The NCP appears to be weak in Nanded, Aurangabad, Latur and Osmanabad. The Latur seat has consistently gone to the Congress candidate and former Speaker of the Lok Sabha Shivraj Patil. His devoted following is referred to as MaMuLi, an acronym for "Marwaris, Muslims and Lingayats".

Marathwada is crucial to Pawar. With its large Dalit and tribal populations, the region has been a centre of social turmoil for decades. In 1996, the Congress(I) lost almost all of Marathwada but regained most of the region in 1998. The Shiv Sena, which had grabbed four seats in 1996, is unlikely to repeat that perfomance. Pawar claims that Shiv Sena "shakhas are being closed and their boys are joining the NCP. They are very disillusioned." The Renapur Assembly constituency in Beed district has evoked s pecial interest since Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde of the BJP is in the fray here. Munde has a large following among his Vanjara tribe but alleged acts of high-handedness by the members of his family during Shiv Sena-BJP rule could work in favour of the NCP candidate, Radhakrishna Patil, who was a member of the last Lok Sabha.

On September 4, Munde’s brother Pandit Anna Pandurang Munde was stabbed by a group of 50 men allegedly belonging to the Congress(I) and the NCP. His attackers alleged that Munde’s brother, while campaigning, had been announcing to the crowds that the loc al NCP and Congress(I) candidates had withdrawn their candidature.

While touring Beed, Pawar was greeted by ecstatic party workers who assured him that Munde’s chances were damaged by his brother’s behaviour. Party workers said that Munde was "so worried about his chances here that he is not leaving his constituency". M unde got Vajpayee and Pramod Mahajan to address public meetings in Renapur. While Vajpayee addressed one meeting, Mahajan addressed some half a dozen. Former BJP MLA Vimal Mundada has shifted to the NCP. Mundada had for long complained of being sidelined by Munde.

Vidarbha, which has 11 Lok Sabha seats, has had a record of being politically volatile. In 1998 the Congress(I) won all the seats here; whereas its 1996 tally was just two. The 1998 victory was largely because of the alliance with the RPI. This time the RPI is fractured; two factions are with the Congress(I) and two with the NCP. Pawar has achieved some success here by winning over the Congress(I) members of the last Lok Sabha from Bhandara and Wardha. The Congress(I)’s morale, however, received a boost because of the alliance with the Prakash Ambedkar and R.S. Gavai factions of the RPI. Ambedkar’s group is strong in Akola, Washim and Mumbai, while Gavai is strong in Amravati. The RPI faction led by Ramdas Athavale, which is an NCP ally, has support al l over Maharashtra. While it is difficult to be specific about Athavale’s areas of influence, the merger of the Khobragade faction with the Athavale faction has improved the prospects of Pawar’s alliance in Marathwada and Vidarbha.

There has been considerable shuffling of seats between parties and candidates in Vidarbha. The Congress(I) member in the dissolved Lok Sabha from Bhandara Praful Patel, contests on the NCP ticket this time from Chimur, where he is pitted against Joginder Kavade of the RPI faction that has allied itself with the Congress(I). Kavade represented Chimur in the previous Lok Sabha. The Congress(I) has put up Dr. Shrikant Jhichkar against the NCP’s Jagdish Nimbathe in Bhandara. The relatively unknown Nimbathe is expected to benefit from Praful Patel’s campaigning. In Washim, former Chief Minister Sudhakkarrao Naik, who has joined the NCP, will campaign for the NCP candidate, Javed Khan. The NCP is expected to win a big chunk of Muslim vote as well as the Banj ara (Naik’s community) vote. There is considerable uncertainty in the Ramtek constituency since all the candidates are new.

The NCP is strong in Yavatmal, where it has fielded former BJP MP Rajabhau Thakre. Thakre lost in 1998 to the Congress(I) by less than 60,000 votes.

The coastal Konkan region, which has five seats, is the chink in the Congress(I) armour. In 1998 the party got just one seat in the region. Pawar admits that the region has been neglected. In the Kulaba constituency, the PDF will support the Peasants and Workers Party candidate, Ramshet Thakur, who is expected to retain his seat. Janata Dal (S) stalwart Madhu Dandavate, who contests from Rajapur, the southern-most constituency in the State, faces Suresh Prabhu, Shiv Sena member in the last Lok Sabha.

Mumbai, a Shiv Sena bastion, has six seats. In 1996 the Congress(I) did not win any seats, but in 1998 it won three with the help of its allies. The NCP and its allies contest all seats in Mumbai.

Although Pawar has consistently ruled out any alliance with the BJP, it is believed that the BJP had considered a mutually beneficial alliance with the NCP in the State. Such an alliance would have benefited the BJP, which has lost considerable strength, especially in Mumbai, because of the strong-arm tactics and corrupt ways of the Shiv Sena.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Volume 16 - Issue 19, Sep. 11 - 24, 1999

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