All the current political upheavals in Maharashtra are with the 2024 elections in mind and there is a degree of white-knuckle tension in all parties, reports Aditi Phadnis.
"It is a ploy to break the Maha Vikas Aghadi," said a former chief minister of Maharashtra from the Congress, baldly after a two-hour meeting between Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar and Gautam Adani, head of the Adani Group, in Mumbai last month.
While no one except those present knows exactly what transpired at the meeting, it gave rise to speculation, especially as it took place after Pawar had asserted in an interview that Adani group had been singled out for attack, in the process, distancing himself from the rest of the Opposition.
The Congress and other parties have been seeking a joint parliamentary committee probe into the allegations levelled by US-based short-seller Hindenburg Research. Doubts about Pawar and the NCP's intentions deepened amid signals by former deputy CM Ajit Pawar that he might be considering jumping ship and joining up with the Bharatiya Janata Party.
For the record, the Congress said it was not particularly worried about Sharad Pawar's intentions.
"(Sharad) Pawar and Adani have known each other personally for long. We have no reason to hazard any guesses about politics," former Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan said. "There is no ambiguity. We are firm on JPC on Adani," he underlined.
But Ajit Pawar's recent moves suggest a Plan B is in place. And everything hinges on the outcome of a Supreme Court case about the disqualification of current CM Eknath Shinde who helped the BJP form a government in Maharashtra with 40 members of the legislative assembly from the Shiv Sena.
If those MLAs are disqualified by the Supreme Court, in an order expected in days rather than weeks (it is reserved but Justice M R Shah, who is among those who have written the order, is due to retire on May 15), Ajit Pawar does not want to be caught napping.
That Ajit Pawar would be welcomed by the party was emphasised by the BJP's senior leadership.
"The BJP's doors are always open. It is part of our expansion plan provided they accept our party and the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi... we are on an expansion spree across 97,000 booths," said state BJP president Chandrashekhar Bawankule, adding, "We don't see anything wrong in the Sharad Pawar-Adani meeting. We have no reason to comment."
But Shinde, the man who broke the Shiv Sena and led a faction to form a coalition with the BJP, thus helping it form a government, can also sense that the sands are shifting.
The BJP and its allies have 113 MLAs. The halfway mark for a majority is 145 in the 288-member assembly. The balance was made up by breakaway Sena MLAs. If they are disqualified, the government falls.
Shinde has said clearly that if the NCP joins the Maharashtra government in any shape, he will resign.
"Our policy is clear. The NCP is a party that betrays. We will not be with the NCP even in power. Maharashtra will not like it. We decided to move out (of the earlier undivided Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray) because people didn't like us going with the Congress and NCP," said Shiv Sena Spokesperson Sanjay Shirsat.
On the other hand, if MLAs from the Shinde faction are disqualified, the faction's unease at a truck with NCP becomes irrelevant.
Enter Ajit Pawar.
For the record, the four-time deputy CM of the state has said repeatedly that he will not leave the NCP. However, leaders from the Shiv Sena say this is only a negotiating stance.
"He (Ajit Pawar) has always had an eye on the CM's position. He will not accept anything less," said a Sena leader.
But that is only part of the package.
With Lok Sabha elections barely a year away, Maharashtra with 48 seats is crucial for the BJP if the party has to better its 303 tally in the Lower House. This can only happen if it has a credible partner in Maharashtra.
In the last Lok Sabha elections, the Shiv Sena and the BJP contested in alliance. The BJP won 23, the Sena 18. Today, the Sena is badly divided, but still commands some loyalty among voters.
The BJP has to replace its alliance partner and needs to decide who will be most successful in breaking the Sena strongholds while seeking the fewest seats.
All the current political upheavals in Maharashtra are with the 2024 elections in mind and there is a degree of white-knuckle tension in all parties.
What happens in Maharashtra will have a fallout on national politics in 2024, and everyone knows this.