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Disputes Over Seat Sharing Make Alliance Partners Look Like Foes!

  • Maharashtra, the most important swing state in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, has traditionally seen a battle between two sides

Sharad Singh

Just two weeks ahead of the first phase of Lok Sabha polling on April 19, the political action in Maharashtra is buzzing with unexpected twists and turns happening because of the infighting between alliance partners on both sides of the political divide. Just last weekend there was a lot of rumour-mongering over why Chief Minister Eknath Shinde reportedly virtually vanished from public view, with one regional news television channel claiming he was not reachable for over 36 hours after his disputes with the BJP leaders. On the other side of the political divide there was talk of Uddhav Thackeray, the leader of Shiv Sena UBT faction, suddenly announcing 17 names of his candidates and the Congress party saying they were taken aback by this announcement as they were not properly consulted about it. Most observers did not expect this kind of sudden turmoil taking place between alliance partners in Maharashtra, as all looked well just a few weeks ago with the seat-sharing formula between alliance partners almost getting finalised without any disputes.

Maharashtra, the most important swing state in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, has traditionally seen a battle between two sides; the BJP-led saffron alliance of the BJP and Shiv Sena and the Congress-NCP alliance. Since 2019, everything changed and after the Shiv Sena as well as Sharad Pawar’s NCP split into two groups, now the battle of 2024 polls will see four parties fighting it out to establish their supremacy in the political field. In addition to four major players the state has also seen the rise of small parties and independents contesting with vigour in the past two elections. This makes the upcoming Lok Sabha battle a multi-coloured contest and therefore perhaps the most unpredictable one in decades. The BJP is the largest player in the state with maximum seats in the Assembly; the Congress is now at second position since Shiv Sena and NCP have split in two groups, one led by Eknath Shinde and the other by Ajit Pawar. The emergence of Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBS) which took almost 4% votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in many constituencies and independents as well as Asaduddin Owaisi’s MIM have added uncertainty to the situation.
Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena was not expected to have any major disputes with the BJP over distribution of Lok Sabha seats as it is known the Shinde and BJP’s top Maharashtra face Devendra Fadnavis have shared an amicable relationship since they formed the Mahayuti government over two years ago. However, the sudden entry of Ajit Pawar into this coalition in July last year seems to have destabilised the situation. Eknath Shinde has been seen sulking over many issues since Ajit Pawar and his MLAs started dominating cabinet decisions. Against this backdrop, Shinde was seen taking an aggressive posture over the Lok Sabha seat-sharing formula. Insiders say Shinde got very upset when he realised BJP is not forthcoming in easily keeping aside the Kalyan Lok Sabha seat for his son, sitting MP Shrikant Shinde. The BJP some months ago had raised demands that the Kalyan seat should be fought by its own candidate and not be left for Shinde’s Sena. There is also some dispute over the Nashik Lok Sabha seat, two seats in Mumbai and some seats in Konkan region where Shinde feels his party has a decent base. Shinde now has the support of 13 Lok Sabha members of the 18 members who won in the 2019 Lok Sabha contest on Uddhav Thackeray’s original Bow & Arrow Shiv Sena symbol. But insiders say the BJP leadership in New Delhi told Shinde that there was no way they could give all its 13 people candidature this time. One senior BJP leader claimed the BJP would be able to convince Shinde soon and there would be a settlement but things don’t seem easy as of now.

If any dispute between Shinde and the BJP came as a surprise to political observers in Maharashtra, a bigger shock came last week when Uddhav Thackeray’s trusted lieutenant, Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut, released the list of the Uddhav Thackeray Sena group’s 17 candidates on social media; one of the top Congress leaders in the state, Balasaheb Thorat, had to hold a media conference and express displeasure that the party was not consulted before the list was released. What was shocking for the Congress party was the mention of Sangli Lok Sabha constituency in Western Maharashtra’s sugar belt, Mumbai North West Constituency and Mumbai South Central Lok Sabha constituency in Uddhav Thackeray’s list. The Congress was all set to announce former Maharashtra minister Varsha Gaikwad’s name as their candidate in South Central Mumbai and Vishal Patil’s name in Sangli which had been a Congress bastion before the 2014 Modi wave. Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan also expressed shock over Uddhav suddenly announcing former Rajya Sabha Member Anil Desai’s candidature from South Central Mumbai and wrestler Chandrahar Patil’s candidature from Sangli. The top state leadership reportedly also consulted the Congress high command about the possibility of fielding their own candidates in Sangli and South Central Mumbai too. But no final call was taken on this till Tuesday. With this it is clear that Uddhav wants to keep his foothold in Mumbai by contesting South Mumbai, South Central Mumbai and North West Mumbai, keeping only three seats for the other two alliance partners, Congress and Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Clearly Uddhav is keeping his party’s interest in mind for the Assembly polls as well as the city’s municipal corporation polls that come later this year and next year respectively.
Talk about putting up a united front against the BJP may have happened in I.N.D.I.A alliance rallies in the past week but when it comes to sharing of Lok Sabha constituencies, alliance partners are seen not leaving an inch of space for each other. The situation on the other side of the divide, ie the NDA alliance, is not much different. The BJP is seen dominating and leaders like Eknath Shinde and Ajit Pawar seem to be pushing back as much as possible. About a fortnight before the first phase of polling, the alliances look very fragmented over seat sharing and their insistence on not leaving space for their partners makes them look more like foes than friends.

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