In Maharashtra, the Opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) comprising the Congress, Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena (UBT) and Sharad Pawar-led NCP (SP) displayed a remarkable unity in the recent Lok Sabha polls, contesting with a cohesive game plan. – ranging from seat-sharing to campaigning to caste equations – which yielded impressive electoral dividends for the alliance.

The MVA got the better of the ruling Mahayuti coalition in the polls, winning 30 seats out of 48 as against the latter’s 17 seats.

However, the Assembly elections, slated for October this year, may be a different ball game, which would test the unity, strength and strategies of the MVA.

Already, there have been murmurs in the Opposition camp over its chief ministerial candidate. The pulls and pressures within the grouping forged by parties with different ideologies would be evident in the coming days as each MVA ally believes the state polls would give it the opportunity to secure an edge over other partners by gaining bigger foothold among the masses.

Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut has already started projecting Uddhav as the MVA’s CM face for the upcoming polls, which has been disapproved by both the Congress and the Pawar NCP.

Festive offer

Raut said, “Uddhav Thackeray should be projected as the CM candidate for MVA due to his popularity. He had proved himself as the CM (during the previous MVA regime), especially the way he successfully tackled the Covid pandemic.”

Raut’s pitch has not amused the other MVA allies. Sharad Pawar said, “Our alliance is our collective face. We believe in collective leadership, not individual approach.”

The 83-year-old Pawar, who has embarked on a state-wide tour, said, “At this moment our focus is on Assembly polls.”

Dubbed as Maharashtra’s “tallest leader”, Pawar, known as a past master of pragmatic politics, had ensured Uddhav’s leadership as the CM of the MVA government in 2019 despite the resentment of several leaders of his own party, then undivided. But Pawar had justified it by underlining its necessity for stitching the MVA against the BJP.

As Uddhav did not have any administrative experience, it created space for Pawar to guide his regime. The NCP was thus in a commanding position in the MVA government, playing a lead role in its policy-formulation and decision-making processes.

The Congress had then complained of having got a “raw deal” in the Uddhav dispensation. This came to light as the state Congress leaders often flagged it in their meetings with the party high command.

The Lok Sabha polls saw the Congress bounce back to the center stage of Maharashtra politics, finishing on top among all the contenders by winning

13 seats out of 17 it contested. The Pawar NCP bagged 8 seats out of 10 it fought. The Uddhav Sena’s strike rate was the lowest in the MVA as it won just nine seats out of 21 it contested.

Boosted by its success, the Congress is now looking to assert its leadership among the MVA partners in seat-sharing and other preparations for the Assembly polls.

A senior Congress leader said, “Unlike Uddhav Sena, we are not noisy. But our alliance partners should reckon that their electoral success is thanks to our vote bank encompassing Dalits, tribals, Marathas and Muslims.” These communities formed the Congress’s traditional support base which, the party claims, has been revived now.

State Congress president Nana Patole said, “Every decision regarding Assembly polls will be taken keeping Maharashtra welfare. At the same time we will also ensure our party’s aspirations and interest are safeguarded.”

There was a common refrain among several Congress and NCP (SP) leaders that “the basic principle of an alliance remains the point that whichever ally gets more seats will stake claim for the CM’s post”.

Top leaders of the two parties believe that projecting the MVA’s CM nominee ahead of the polls would cause fissures within the MVA, which would prompt intra-alliance rivalries for gaining an upper hand.

Several Opposition camp’s strategists say that there would be challenges on various fronts in the Assembly polls. The question of leadership was not a major issue among the MVA partners in the Lok Sabha elections as they were united by the sole concern to defeat the Mahayuti, especially the BJP. The poll outcome saw the BJP’s tally plunge to just nine seats out of 28 it contested. The Chief Minister Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena and the Ajit Pawar-headed NCP won seven seats and one out of 15 and four seats they contested respectively.

At their joint meeting following their Lok Sabha poll triumph, the MVA leaders decided to continue the alliance for the Assembly polls. State NCP chief Jayant Patil said, “We have decided to remain together.” Similar sentiments were voiced by senior Congress leader Balasaheb Thorat, who said, “MVA will contest together. If there are issues, it will get resolved through discussions.”

One of the questions that has arisen now is, would the Uddhav Sena and the Pawar NCP accept the Congress’s leadership and concede more seats to it for the Assembly polls in light of its Lok Sabha poll performance.

In the parliamentary polls, Pawar and the Congress leaders had taken a back seat, projecting Uddhav as the MVA’s face. The Assembly polls would however present a different scenario.

Pawar is, however, known for his pragmatic politics. In the 2004 Assembly polls, the NCP won 71 seats compared to the Congress’s 69 seats. Yet, Pawar conceded the CM’s post to the Congress in lieu of major portfolios such as home, finance, rural development, power and public works department for his party’s ministers.

A bitter tussle between the then alliance partners, Sena and BJP, over the CM post in the run-up to the 1999 polls paved the way for the Congress and the NCP to come to power, whose alliance government continued till 2014.

To consolidate the MVA in order to take on the Mahayuti in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls decisively, Pawar had gone out of his way to ensure a cohesive alliance so as to avoid a split in the anti-NDA votes. Whether he is able to pull off the same feat again, in the Assembly polls, remains to be seen.