So who stands to benefit the most by a weak Opposition?
What's behind the sudden public spat between the two parties?
Jyoti Punwani reports.
Who stands to benefit from the imminent break-up of the poll alliance between the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi and the AIMIM?
The alliance's impressive debut in the Lok Sabha polls cost the Congress 7 seats, including that of former chief minister Ashok Chavan (Nanded) who had withstood the Modi wave in 2014.
Another ex-CM who would have won had the Dalit votes not been split by Prakash Ambedkar was Sushil Kumar Shinde (Solapur).
So logically, the Congress should gain the most by a split in these two parties that have poached on its traditional vote banks.
But it might not.
Things have changed drastically for the party since its abysmal performance in the Lok Sabha polls, particularly in Maharashtra, where it one just one seat.
It is not just the desertion of its leaders that is the main problem.
Indeed, these desertions are being viewed by some optimists as a blessing.
Said one young Congressman who didn't want to be named: "The rotten apples are leaving on their own. The party will be forced to nominate new faces. That may enthuse both workers and voters."
New faces was the demand made by young Congress members at a meeting held in Mumbai soon after the Lok Sabha defeat.
But in Maharashtra, the party has neither the organisational structure necessary to support these faces nor the leadership to guide them.
But all these handicaps might have been overlooked by Muslims, who voted overwhelmingly for the party in Maharashtra in the Lok Sabha polls, had the party played the role expected of it as a national Opposition Party.
The Congress's support to the BJP in the Rajya Sabha on the frighteningly authoritarian UAPA amendment bill; the voices from within the party that came out strongly in support of the abrogation of Article 370, going against the party's official line; and most importantly for many (but not all) Muslims, the absence of five Congress MPs when the triple talaq bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha, has made Muslims wonder if the party can be relied upon.
Incidentally, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar and his colleague Praful Patel were also absent when voting on the triple talaq bill took place in the Rajya Sabha.
In contrast, Muslims still remember Asaduddin Owaisi's December 2018 speech in the Lok Sabha opposing the Bill.
The speech went viral, and earned praise even from his detractors.
Even if it had not gone viral, the Hyderabad MP made sure his voters got to know that he had opposed the Bill in Parliament.
He made it a recurring theme in his Lok Sabha election campaign, one more weapon that he used against the Congress.
Did any Congress Muslim speak against the triple talaq Bill, he would ask at his rallies.
The fact that many Congress members had argued against the Bill, starting from Leader of the party in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, was never mentioned by Owaisi.
For that would not have suited his brand of identity politics which is based on the premise that Muslim interests can only be served by Muslim MPs.
This premise hasn't yet managed to get much support in Maharashtra.
But it appears Prakash Ambedkar didn't know this when he rejected everyone's advice and chose to ally with Owaisi for the Lok Sabha polls.
The realisation that Owaisi was not the sole leader of Muslims seems to have dawned on Ambedkar only after the polls.
'Muslims did not vote for the VBA,' he complained at a press conference even before the Lok Sabha results were declared.
This realisation also seems to be one of the reasons for his sudden cavalier treatment of his poll partner, first deprecating the AIMIM's demands as unrealistic, then offering the party a paltry 8 out of Maharashtra's 288 assembly seats.
But this time too, Ambedkar seems to have misread the situation.
The AIMIM in Maharashtra is not what it was a year ago.
The party's Imtiyaz Jaleel was the only candidate of the VBA-AIMIM alliance to win a Lok Sabha seat (Aurangabad).
More importantly, Owaisi's standing too has changed.
While he has not yet attained the stature he has been aiming for, that of the sole masiha of the Muslims, Owaisi is now seen as more acceptable even by those Muslims who shunned his politics as narrow and self-destructive.
Like Fakir Thakur. Head of a federation of Marathi Muslim NGOs, Thakur was all set to support the proposed third front led by Prakash Ambedkar in the Lok Sabha polls.
But Ambedkar's alliance with Owaisi wrecked all chances of a third front and pushed Thakur to working for the Congress.
So how come the same man is now thinking of supporting Owaisi?
"Are we Muslims alone supposed to be the pall bearers of secularism?" responds Thakur angrily.
Akif Dafedar of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Muslim Brigade switched to the Shiv Sena in 2014, disillusioned with the Congress.
But when Udhav Thackeray confirmed his alliance with the BJP for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Dafedar too thought it best to work for the Congress.
The MIM, even in alliance with Ambedkar, was never an option.
Today, Dafedar feels the break-up of the VBA-MIM alliance is the "saddest thing to have happened for democracy. They wouldn't have formed the government, but together, they would have made a strong Opposition. That's badly needed today when the frightening danger facing us is of one-party rule."
Both Thakur and Dafedar have always identified strongly with their state and its language and culture, and criticised religion-based politics.
Yet today, if they can think of supporting a party based solely on faith, the Congress must be held responsible.
In 2014, the Congress's government's apathy towards Muslims and its policy of framing innocent Muslims on terror charges, helped the AIMIM get enough votes to enter Maharashtra's assembly with two MLAs.
Five years later, the Congress's failure to take on the BJP even with its limited strength, has made the AIMIM respectable.
With one MP, two MLAs, and more than 150 corporators which include some from the scheduled caste and other deprived castes, the MIM is in a position to reject Ambedkar's offer of 8 assembly seats.
But if Owaisi has gained in stature since the Lok Sabha polls, so has Ambedkar.
His appeal is no longer confined to Dalits.
His claim of giving representation to castes who have been denied political space by the Congress-NCP is taken seriously by many activists.
One of them is Aamir Edresy, well-known among Mumbai's Muslims as the head of the Association of Muslim Professionals, which has been helping young Muslims in education for many years.
Like all Muslim activists, Edresy too has been close to the Congress.
But he hopes to get an assembly ticket from Prakash Ambedkar's VBA.
"Only we Muslims are still voting for the Congress," says Edresy impatiently.
"Uptil now, the Congress would invoke the fear of the BJP to win our votes. But today, where is the Congress opposing the BJP? Be it the UAPA Bill or the abrogation of Article 370, Prakash Ambedkar and Owaisi have spoken out much more strongly."
Edresy views the VBA as "not just a political party, but a social movement of all disadvantaged groups."
The political alliance between Prakash Ambedkar and Asaduddin Owaisi is being reflected on the ground, he adds.
"I see such enthusiasm among Dalits, OBCs and Muslims to work together. Everybody respects these two leaders tremendously. When the mainstream political voices have taken a backseat, these are the alternative political voices that need to be supported."
Edresy points out that the VBA's banner outside its office in Naigaon, a Marathi locality in central Mumbai, has Owaisi's face on it.
"Imagine Owaisi's face in Naigaon! The Congress displays faces of its Muslim leaders only in Muslim-dominated areas. But there are hardly any Muslims in Naigaon."
"This reflects the real India. This is what we need today to counter the BJP's ideology."
The VBA-AIMIM alliance received 4.1 million votes in the Lok Sabha election, an impressive 14% of the votes cast. In eight seats, its vote share exceeded 10%. In 13 seats, its candidates polled over 100,000 votes.
Going by a rough calculation which equates one Lok Sabha seat to six assembly seats, and given the dire straits in which the Congress-NCP are today, the Ambedkar-Owaisi alliance would have indeed formed a substantial Opposition bloc in the Maharashtra assembly.
The results may not be the same if they fight separately.
So who stands to benefit the most by a weak Opposition? What's behind the sudden public spat between the two parties?
While party workers on both sides hope it will be resolved, what are the leaders's intentions?
Remember, in the Lok Sabha poll, the VBA-AIMIM alliance was called the 'B' team of the BJP.