By Amulya Ganguli
Mumbai, Sep 26 (IANS): The Maharashtra assembly elections have assumed an even greater importance for the Congress in the aftermath of its recent setbacks in the by-elections in Gujarat. Besides, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)'s good showing in Bihar, along with that of its junior partner, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), has also been discomfiting to the party.
The only way for the Congress to recover its poise is to fare well in Maharashtra, the home of India's financial capital Mumbai.
Prima facie, the scene is a positive one for the Congress. For a start, it has been able to seal a seat-sharing deal with its ally, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Normally, this exercise is a tricky one in Indian politics.
Arguably, it is the Congress's less than satisfactory showing elsewhere that persuaded it to be more accommodating with the NCP. The latter, too, had no option but to stand by the Congress after its own poor performance in the Lok Sabha elections.
The two parties agreed, therefore, on a 174-114 division of the state's 288 assembly seats this time against the 166-122 division in 2004, with the lion's share going to the Congress.
The reason for the tilt in the Congress's favour is that it had gained a lead in 81 assembly segments while winning 17 parliamentary seats last May.
The NCP, on the other hand, came first in 50 assembly segments while winning a mere eight Lok Sabha seats. Its declining status is evident from the fact that the NCP was actually ahead of the Congress in the last assembly elections, winning 71 seats to the Congress's 69.
The reversal in the positions of the two parties means that NCP chief Sharad Pawar, currently the tallest leader in Maharashtra, is probably entering the twilight phase of his career. He had been riding high during the run-up to the parliamentary polls, with the Shiv Sena's Bal Thackeray hailing him as a future prime minister and the Left-sponsored Third Front trying, not without success, to rope him in.
But the Lok Sabha election results deflated both him and his party. Although the Congress generously let Pawar retain his old portfolio in the agriculture ministry in the union cabinet, the fizz has gone out of the NCP's politics. There has been talk, therefore, mainly from the Congress side, about the NCP repairing its 1999 breach with the Congress and returning to the mother organisation.
Since the NCP has little influence outside Maharashtra, the outcome may prove to be crucial for its future as an independent entity. One of its stalwarts, former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma, has already mended fences with the Congress after his daughter, Agatha, was inducted into the union ministry.
It isn't that the Congress does not have troubles of its own. For one, the party must be acutely aware that the ruling alliance in Maharashtra was only eight assembly seats ahead of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine in the Lok Sabha contest.
For another, it is common knowledge that Raj Thackeray's Navnirman Sena cut into the Shiv Sena votes to hand the Congress-NCP its success. But for the uncle-nephew tiff in the Thackeray family, the ruling parties would not have been so happily placed.
This time, too, the Congress and the NCP are said to be banking on Raj repeating his earlier divisive trick. But the snag is that his inability to win any seats in the parliamentary polls may have reduced his appeal among the saffron voters. As a result, a sizeable section of them may not "waste" their votes this time. The gainer, naturally, will be the Shiv Sena and the BJP.
There are other problems for the Congress as well. The most contentious of them is the party's decision to field Rajendra Shekhawat, the son of President Pratibha Patil, in the Amravati constituency, which is held by Sunil Deshmukh, a minister in the Ashok Chavan cabinet.
Not only is this the first time that a sitting president's son will be contesting an election, Deshmukh has lost no time in raising a banner of revolt by saying that he will stand as an independent candidate. Considering that he won the Amravati seat for two successive terms, he has every right to feel aggrieved.
Even if Deshmukh is mollified, the entry of the president's son will reinforce the party's dynastic proclivities. The Congress, however, is not the only one which is guilty.
Among the others who have been following the "family first" routine is Gopinath Munde, the BJP's topmost leader in the state after Pramod Mahajan's death. He is backing the candidature of his daughter Pankaja, niece Poonam (who is Mahajan's daughter) and his elder brother's son-in-law, Madhusudan Kendre.
Apart from internal rumblings and middle class angst about dynastic politics, the Congress will have to be wary of a motley group led by a former ally, Ramdas Athavale of the Republican Party, one of the oldest Dalit outfits in the country.
The group comprises, among others, the two communist parties, the Peasants and Workers Party, the Janata Dal (Secular) and the Samajwadi Party. Although none of them presents a major challenge, they are still capable of weaning away sections of the Dalit and Muslim votes to hurt the Congress-NCP team.
Despite the edge which the ruling group has at the moment, its leaders will still spend sleepless nights during the elections.