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Choosing the right remote control

September 15, 2004

Shivaji and Savarkar seem to occupy more space in the media than Sharad and Shinde even as the polls to the Maharashtra assembly draw ever closer. The stakes are indeed high given that Maharashtra is not just the largest state bar one (second only to Uttar Pradesh) in India, but also the industrial and financial heart of the country. It is therefore understandable that both the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance and the BJP-Shiv Sena combine are trying to exploit every emotion. That said, I honestly do not believe that the controversy over the insult to Savarkar or the crazy decision to raise a memorial to Shivaji's foe Afzal Khan will be major issues in these election.

Maharashtra is as far from Uttar Pradesh as Britain is from Germany, but I rather think that decisions being made in Lucknow right now could determine who rules in Mumbai in a couple of weeks. That is because two parties hitherto associated almost exclusively with the politics of the Gangetic belt are making a determined bid to win a foothold in Maharashtra. Mulayam Singh Yadav and his Samajwadi Party are trying to extend their reach courtesy the tried and tested
route of exploiting the Muslim voters. Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party are making a grand play of their status as the "true inheritors of Babasaheb Ambedkar's legacy" and, simultaneously, by supporting the call to carve out a separate state of Vidarbha. I am sure that both the current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and his chief enemy will enjoy some success in their efforts; it is just a question of the extent of their success.

Vidarbha was virtually swept by the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in the general election earlier this year. The Congress and the
Nationalist Congress Party blame this, at least in part, on the fact that the Bahujan Samaj Party took away votes.

What is truly odd is that the Shiv Sena has publicly and repeatedly gone on record opposing the division of Maharashtra while its ally, the BJP, seems to be cautiously supportive of the move. On the other side of the political divide, the Congress has chosen to support the call for Vidarbha while the Nationalist Congress Party seems to be dragging its heels. The curious result is that both the national parties are in favour of dividing Maharashtra where their powerful regional partners are against the move. The entry of the Bahujan Samaj Party now threatens to muddy the waters even more.

The Congress 'high command' is in favour of an alliance euphemistically described as an 'understanding' with Mayawati. (This, of course, would not be limited to Maharashtra, but extend to other states, notably Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.) The difficulty is that Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, a Dalit himself, is not in favour of any such move. Poor Shinde is not exactly a major factor in the politics of the state – a situation underlined by the fact that he could not even get his own wife elected to the Lok Sabha – and can be ignored with impunity. More important, the Republican Party of India founded by Dr Ambedkar himself also opposes the move. (Understandably so, since both the Republican Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party are making a play for the Dalit vote.)

Meanwhile, the Samajwadi Party is quietly going about the business of wooing the Muslim voter (a factor in the urban areas). Mulayam Singh Yadav has no love lost for the Congress, especially given the Gandhi family's repeated criticism of his administration's failures on a range of subjects from electricity to security. The Samajwadi Party has enjoyed modest success in previous elections and would like to build on this, if only to give the Congress something else to worry about.

Oddly enough, neither of the two major camps has specified who the chief minister shall be if they should win the elections. If, for instance, the Shiv Sena emerges as the single largest party, will it be a member of the Thackeray family who will sit in the chief minister's chair, or will the party supremo nominate an outsider to prevent bickering in the clan? As far as the Congress goes, the sole criterion seems to be that the chosen one should not be anyone nominated by its nominal ally Sharad Pawar.

In effect, then, the voters of Maharashtra are not going to elect a chief minister; they are merely getting the opportunity to decide whether it shall be Sonia Gandhi or Bal Thackeray who wields the remote control — and in the end, of course, some of the buttons could be wearing Samajwadi Party or Bahujan Samaj Party colours!

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T V R Shenoy

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