Game of alliances and the vote katua factor in Maharashtra

In the last 30 years, Maharashtra politics has been majorly impacted by making and breaking of alliances and smaller vote katua (vote cutter) parties. The momentum has shifted either towards the NDA or the UPA based on these factors in the state. We are again at an inflection point in the state politics. The assembly elections will be held in less than a month. The future of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance will have far reaching implications on the state. The calling off of the alliance may not impact this assembly election cycle as the BJP is very strong followed by the Sena. But there would be a major impact on the future election cycles. If the ruling parties (BJP and Shiv Sena) were to slip on governance by 2024, this could offer a chance for making a comeback to the Congress-NCP.

Fadnavis and Uddhav

Also there has been a vote katua party in the state in each of the elections in the last three decades. Earlier it was the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). This time the vote katuas are likely to be the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) led by Prakash Ambedkar and the AIMIM led by Asaduddin Owaisi.

Let us take a look at the history of alliances and vote katuas in Maharashtra in the last 30 years,

Alliances and their impact:

In the last 30 years, Maharashtra has been a state where alliances have played an important role in getting power in the state. After the intial phase of Congress dominance in Maharashtra, which lasted for an awful long time (from state formation) till 1991; electoral alliances started playing a major role. There were brief periods like in 1978 when Sharad Pawar (who else) broke away from the Congress party (toppling the government of his mentor Vasantdada Patil) and formed Congress (Socialist) and allied with the Janata party and the Peasents and Workers party (PWP) to form the government for two years. After that it was back to Congress domination in 1980, 1985 and 1990.

Joshi and Munde
Chief Minister Manohar Joshi and Dy CM Gopinath Munde (Courtesy: News Nation)

The 1995 assembly election was historic in the true sense. Indian National Congress (INC) was the biggest party with 80 seats but the pre poll alliance of Shiv Sena (73) and BJP (65) seats was the biggest alliance with 138 seats. Interestingly 45 independents (most of them Congress rebels) had won that election. The historic saffron alliance performance could be mainly attritbuted to the post Babri riots aftermath in which Mumbai burnt for more than a month and the chain bomb blasts that followed in March 1993. The Hindu population in regions like Mumbai-Thane, Konkan and Marathwada polarised and gave large number of seats to the saffron parties. Mumbai gave 32/36 seats to the Sena and BJP. With just 7 seats needed for a simple majority, many of the rebel Congress men who had won as independents supported the Sena-BJP (for minister ships) and Sena’s Manohar Joshi was elected as the first true non-Congress chief minister of Maharashtra. The anti-incumbency of Congress from multiple terms also caught up in this election, though it took 48 years after independence to do so.

The Congress split just before the Lok Sabha 1999 election with Sharad Pawar forming the Nationalist Congree Party (NCP). The pretext for his resignation from the Congress was protest against the foreign origins of Sonia Gandhi. Of course the real reason was that with the entry of Sonia Gandhi in active politics, Pawar’s dream of being the Prime Minister of the Congress party was dashed forever. The Maharashtra state assembly election was held with along with the Lok Sabha election. The INC emerged as the biggest party with 75 seats. The Sena (69) and BJP (56) lost just 13 seats from their combined 1995 tally. The new party NCP got 58 seats. The Congress-NCP formed a post poll alliance and along with independents and other smaller parties formed the state government. Sharad Pawar who had left the Congress party opposing Sonia Gandhi, showed that there is nothing greater than political power and accepted the junior alliance partner position to the Congress. The people of Maharashtra gave the NDA 28 Lok Sabha seats (out of 48) but ousted them at the state level.

The Congress and NCP endured after that in the 2004 and 2009 assembly elections and won these elections, on the back of the Lok Sabha victory in these years. The Vajpayee government held the Lok Sabha election of 2004 about six months ahead of schedule. Thus the Maharashtra assembly election has been held about six months after the Lok Sabha election ever since. The winner of the Lok Sabha election has won the Maharashtra state assembly election since 2004. That history is not likely to change in 2019.

In 2014, there was a major change in Maharashtra when at the last moment the BJP and NCP in a suspiciously co-ordinated move broke their alliances with the Sena and the Congress respectively. Many seats saw a four cornered contest and BJP came out on top with 122 seats, followed by the Sena with 63 seats. The Congress and NCP both could not touch 50 seats on their own. The BJP was short of the majority figure but they nearly tripled their seats with respect to the previous assembly election. Just when Uddhav Thackeray thought that he had the BJP by it’s throat, Modi ji’s all weather friend Sharad Pawar (you should have guessed it) sprang a surprise and gave unconditional support to the BJP. Uddhav was robbed of any chance to negotiate hard with the BJP and eventually the Sena agreed to join the alliance and play second fiddle.

After many verbal fights and confrontations between 2014 and 2019, the BJP and Sena against formalised their alliance for the Lok Sabha election of 2019. The Sharad Pawar led NCP realised that they cannot fight alone and again allied with the Congress. The result was a repeat of 2014 as the NDA won 41 seats and the UPA won 7 seats (including a supported independent candidate). The Congress and the NCP has just concluded their seat sharing formula for the assembly election of 2019. Both the parties will fight 125 seats each and 38 seats will go to the smaller allies like Raju Shetti’s Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana, Hitendra Thakur’s Bahujan Vikas Aghadi (BVA), Peasents and Workers Party, Samajwadi party and smaller factions of the Republican Party of India.

The BJP and Shiv Sena are again bickering over seat sharing. The Sena claims that they had got an assurance of 50-50 percent seat sharing from the BJP, when the Lok Sabha alliance discussions were held. The BJP says that in view of the changed political situation it is the bigger brother and so must get more seats. It is said that Fadnavis is keen for an alliance but with BJP getting minimum 150 seats. The formula being discussed on TV channels at the moment is 155-120-13 (for smaller allies). This could be an inflection point in Maharashtra politics especially for the future elections. The BJP and Shiv Sena could dominate this election fighting seperately. However the Congress and NCP could survive decimation and live to fight another day. There is a popular opinion that the BJP and Shiv Sena could yet ally to decimate the Congress and the NCP. Then they have the next five years to fight against each other for hegemony. This is supported by the observation that there is no vitriol being spread by either of the parties, like in the pre-Lok Sabha 2019 era. Pawar is hoping for the yuti to break so that the Congress and NCP could attempt to win 80-90 seats and stay afloat.

Vote katua parties and their impact:

The Samajwadi party and Bahujan Samaj Party after their politicial success in the early 1990s had spread their wings to Maharashtra and esp the urban areas of Mumbai-Thane and Vidarbha. They had a huge Hindi speaking votebank (migrants from UP and Bihar) as a target and they were also keen to capture the muslim votebank. The muslim votebank was beginning to get out of the grip of the Congress, over the Congress’s perceived failure to protect the Babri masjid and the community itself during the post Babri riots in Mumbai. The Samajwadi party (SP) whose supremo had the halo of having fired on the karsewaks in Ayodhya, was a new messiah for the muslim community. The SP hit the Congress chances a lot in the assembly elections of 1995 and 1999. The SP won three assembly seats in 1995 and destroyed the Congress chances on a few more seats.

Similarly the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) hurt the Congress in some seats of Vidarbha by eating the traditional dalit vote of the Congress. In fact during the 1999 assembly election, the NCP also caused the defeat of the Congress on some seats. The SP and BSP thus hurt the Congress in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections in this era, by eating the Hindi speaking voters, dalit voters and the muslim vote


The tide turned in 2009 as the splinter party of the Shiv Sena, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) won 13 MLA seats in the Mumbai-Thane, Pune, Nashik urban belt (70 seats). The Raj Thackeray craze in 2009 saw the MNS hurt the BJP-Sena alliance in a lot more seats in these areas. The core Marathi vote of the BJP-Sena was badly eaten into by the MNS in the 2009 Lok Sabha and the subsequent assembly election thus indirectly helping the Congress and the NCP. Raj Thackeray became a major political player after this election (albeit for a short duration of three years till the 2012 municipal elections in the state).

In 2014, the SP and AIMIM acted as vote katuas to a smaller extent but the Congress itself was down and out. The main contest was between the BJP and the Shiv Sena. The saffron parties won 29/36 seats in Mumbai amongst themselves. The Congress was saved on 3-4 seats in Mumbai due to the division of votes between the BJP and the Shiv Sena. For example, the sitting Congress MLA Aslam Sheikh from Malad West assembly won by a margin of 2,303 votes against the BJP candidate. The Sena candidate polled 17,888 votes in this seat and 14,425 votes were polled by the MNS. Also the saffron parties benefitted on some rural seats where the Congress-NCP split helped them win. The erstwhile avatar of the VBA, Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM) caused the defeat of the Congress in some seats of Vidarbha by eating their traditional dalit votes.

Owaisi at public meeting in Solapur
Solapur: AIMIM chief and Hyderabad MP, Asaduddin Owaisi carries Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh leader Prakash Ambedkar during an election campaign rally for the Lok Sabha elections, in Solapur (Courtesy: PTI)

In 2019, The VBA of Prakash Ambedkar will continue this tradition of the vote katua party. No wonder the Congress and Sharad Pawar are already saying that he has been propped up by the BJP.  The VBA ensured the defeat of Congress-NCP on seven Lok Sabha seats in the LS 2019 election.

VBA damaged UPA on seven seats
Details of the seats in LS 2019 polls where the VBA damaged the UPA prospects

The VBA would repeat the same dose on about two-three dozen seats across Maharashtra in the assembly election. The impact of the VBA would be reduced after the breakup of the VBA-AIMIM alliance, but it will still hurt the Congress-NCP. The AIMIM would be a vote katua in it’s own right in some seats of Marathwada and Mumbai-Thane, especially on the seats where the muslim population is on the higher side. Most muslims may still side with the Congress-NCP but the AIMIM would put up a good show. The MNS meanwhile failed to perform it’s vote katua role in a different manner in the Lok Sabha election. Pawar got Raj to campaign against the BJP-Sena and stay away from the electoral fray. This did not quite work out. In my opinion the MNS should have contested the election and cut the traditional votes of the BJP-Sena. This may have helped the Congress-NCP win 1-2 seats in the urban areas. The MNS is still stuck into deciding about it’s participation in the upcoming assembly election. So the MNS would be a non-player again in the assembly election.

So in a nutshell, the impact of alliances and vote katua parties would be felt in the Maharashtra assembly election, that will be held next month. The Congress-NCP have learnt from their 2014 debacle and have smoothly completed their seat sharing talks this time. Their alliance is ready however both the Congress and the NCP have been rendered hollow and significantly weak, by the wholesale poaching done by the saffron parties. The vote katuas are also in the fray ready to damage the Congress. The fate of Maharashtra’s future political direction now hinges on the formation or non-formation of the BJP and Sena alliance. This election cycle won’t impact the saffron parties even if they fight alone, as the opposition morale is in the dumps. But it would definitely give a lease of life to the Congress and the NCP. They would be spared complete annhilation of winning less than fifty seats and will live to fight another day.



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