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A strange coincidence, this. In New Delhi, Congress President Rahul Gandhi is believed to have insisted that the party would do very well in Maharashtra in the Lok Sabha polls 15 months away. Gandhi, in an informal chat, is understood to have said that Maharashtra would be prominent among more than six states where the party expects to fare well, raising its tally by some 70 seats. At almost the same time in Mumbai last week, a meeting was on at the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, a Congressman. The agenda? Drawing up unity plans. Leaders who were in the meeting said a decision was taken in principle to fight the polls together. Those of the Congress sought to be politically correct, saying a final decision could be taken by Gandhi after consultation with NCP supremo Sharad Pawar. Vikhe Patil told Business Standard both the parties agreed in principle to have an alliance. He said the guiding principles should be decided by the leaderships of the two parties, indicating that if the terms were set after extended deliberations, it would be smooth sailing. Striking a similar note, another Congress leader and former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan significantly remarked: “Unless all secular parties come together, it would be difficult to defeat the BJP and for this everybody should be ready to make small sacrifices.” What has brought the opposition parties into overdrive is the rupture in ties between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, its oldest ideological ally of 25 years. It has opened more than a window of opportunity for the Congress and the NCP at a time when the belief is that Maharashtra could see the assembly polls simultaneously with the Lok Sabha elections. The Sena’s barely hidden rage at the Modi dispensation is music to the ears of the Congress and the NCP.
In the last assembly elections, the BJP had secured 123 seats, followed by the Sena’s 63. The Congress could secure just 41 and the NCP one less as the BJP made deep inroads into its bastion of Western Maharashtra. A party leader known to be close to Gandhi remarked the alliance was going to happen “100 per cent”. What he did not say was that the Congress leadership is belatedly realising the importance of the Maratha strongman in the national scheme of things when the party wants to build a third version of the UPA. The Congress had got a jolt last year when Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar left the opposition ranks and returned to the BJP fold. The way TMC chief and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has sought to raise the issue of leadership of the alliance so as to project herself has also caused unease in the Congress, which feels that the Gujarat poll verdict and the recent bypolls verdict in Rajasthan show the national mood favours the party and its leader. Twenty years ago, Pawar, who was then in the Congress, had worked wonders in Maharashtra by his social engineering tactics and ensured that the party and its allies secured 42 of the 48 seats in the state. He appears to have seized the initiative in Maharashtra by organising a “Save Constitution march” in Mumbai last month and later a meeting of the opposition leaders in Delhi soon after the commencement of the Budget session. The meeting had raised eyebrows, with a section in the Congress feeling that Pawar could be having a Delhi game plan while focusing on Maharashtra — as his networking skills are legendary. This section also feels that the investigations going on against NCP leader and former Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar and state NCP chief Sunil Tatkare over alleged corruption could be the Achilles’ heel of the NCP, a charge often denied by Pawar the senior. The Maratha strongman, who had only recently organised the party’s “Halla bol” agitation in the Marathwada region successfully, has shown that at 77 there is fight still left in him. A strange coincidence is that at the moment Maharashtra has become key to the Congress’s fortunes next year and a strong showing depends on how Pawar plays his part — and is allowed to play his part. At present, the Congress has just two seats in the Lok Sabha (from the state) and the NCP four. Interestingly, Pawar may not be in the Congress and heading a rival party having a love-hate relationship with it. But still he is considered the top Congress leader from the state.