As Maharashtra's main political players, the Congress-nationalist Congress Party alliance and Bharatiya Janata Party-Shiv Sena combine, brace for the Lok Sabha and subsequent state assembly polls this year, they would have to contend with a new opponent, the Aam Aadmi Party, which has decided to take the electoral plunge in a big way.
Arvind Kejriwal's AAP, which made an electrifying electoral debut in the Delhi polls forming its government in the very first outing, has set up its units in all 35 districts of Maharashtra and is trying to penetrate deeper to taluka level and beyond.
The AAP, with its core comprising the volunteers of Anna Hazare's India Against Corruption movement, already has a significant potential support base in the state not new to aggressive social activism, courtesy the Gandhian and others such as Medha Patkar.
"We have put in place structured committees in all the 35 districts in the state. In some talukas too, we are building a base, while we are working to set up committees at polling booth level," AAP leader Mayank Gandhi, a key member of Team-Kejriwal told PTI.
The party, which galvanised ordinary voters, particularly the youth through its aggressive and sustained campaign through the social media, has already constituted 14 state-level committees for managing the elections.
These committees include experts in media management, volunteer training, manifesto drafting among others. The party is, however, yet to decide on the number of candidates it would field in the Lok Sabha polls from the state which sends 48 members of Parliament, second to Uttar Pradesh (80).
When asked about the leadership issue in the state, Gandhi said the AAP has a collective leadership with Anjali Damania as the state convenor.
"All our leaders at the district level are mass leaders who have been working in their areas for a long time. The AAP is attracting not just professionals such as Meera Sanyal (Royal Bank of Scotland CEO) and Sameer Nair (former chief executive of Star TV) but also dabbawalas, hawkers and autorickshaw unions," he said.
The two major alliances had collectively won 45 of the state's 48 Lok Sabha seats in 2009. While the Congress-NCP combine had pocketed 25 seats, Shiv Sena-BJP had bagged 20.
Though only time will tell how AAP fares in the polls, leaders of the Congress-NCP alliance do not give the year-old political outfit much of a chance because of lack of a strong local leadership.
When asked to comment on AAP's plans in the state, Nawab Malik, NCP spokesman told PTI every party has the right to expand its base. "All elections are a challenge irrespective of who is the opponent. AAP-type experiments have happened many times in the state. People look for leaders who work among them, leaders need to have a connect with the grassroots rather than just do the talking.
"Maharashtra politics is about farmers issues, co-operative movement, educational institutions which have helped politicians to stay connected with the people. Past
experiences show political waves across the country have stopped in the state such as the Janata Party wave and VP Singh wave," he said.
The principal Opposition -- BJP-Shiv Sena alliance -- is hoping to capitalise on the charisma of Narendra Modi and the controversy surrounding Adarsh scam and accusations of grave irregularities in irrigation schemes during the Congress-NCP rule to return a sizable number of MPs from the state and also return to power in Maharashtra.
The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance had formed its government after the 1995 elections. With the exception of the saffron alliance's rule between March 1995 and October 1999, and July 1978 and February 1980 when Sharad Pawar broke away from Congress and formed his Progressive Democratic Front government with the opposition parties, the state has always had a Congress or Congress-led dispensation.
"Modi's projection as BJP's prime ministerial candidate can make some difference but, as of now, we don't see a miracle happening," a Congress leader said, citing the party's long stint in power in the state.
"Maharashtra is a multi-party polity and votes get divided among four major parties -- Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena and BJP. Republican Party of India factions, Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal-United and the Bahujan Samaj Party also have influence in certain pockets. Now, there is Maharashtra Navnirman Sena which is aiming to expand its base. All eyes will be on AAP after its stunning debut in the Delhi polls," political observers say.