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Enemy within & invisible hand

Maharashtra is a state where the political battle lines are clear. But the support bases of parties may well be shifting in new, unexpected ways. By the time the dust settles, the two rival alliances may well occupy very different niches in the sprawling western state.

Mumbai is a case in point. Only twice in the last two decades has the Congress done well in the great metropolis. But it has gained in confidence after the knockout of its saffron rival in the summer 2004 general elections.

Sonia Gandhi's barnstorming tour of Mumbai has no precedent in the Congress' past. Her very first meeting in Bhiwandi found her in a former Samajwadi Party bastion, an area with a large Muslim presence. Her strident attacks on the style of the Shiv Sena-BJP found a willing ear in the non-Marathi voters who make up the majority in an increasingly diverse city.

It is a measure of the hopes of a return to power that took her on a day-long road show of the birthplace and bastion of the Shiv Sena. Only a decade ago, Congress had a lone MLA out of Mumbai's 36. Earlier this year, it led in two-thirds of the Assembly segments.

The great migration of the middle class out of the islands and into the suburbs has also broken up the vote banks of the Sena. A parallel movement has been the increasing clout of Hindi speakers who make up just less than one in five voters in the city.

The general shift in urban Maharashtra was very marked in the May general elections. The NDA won only one of the eight Lok Sabha seats in the three cities of Pune, Nagpur and Mumbai.

But the flip side of the coin should worry the Congress. At the heart of this is the dilemma in the countryside over the equation with its ally, the NCP. This is the first time the two have ever joined forces in an Assembly election. By contrast, the two saffron parties have fought side by side in Assembly polls for nearly two decades.

The Congress has had to confine itself to a mere 158 seats out of 288, spurring a far larger rebellion than ever before. The phenomenon is not limited to the larger ally. Between Pawar's party and Sonia's, the number of expelled aspirants in the field as rebels totals 60.

The issue of rebels is especially critical in the core of old Congress country: the sugar bowl of western Maharashtra. Since sitting MLAs of the two parties have been renominated, the NCP has the lion's share of the 72 seats. Consequently, many candidates of Pawar's party face Congress rebels eager to get a slice of the electoral cake. Far from adding to its vote share, the smaller party may prove to be the red rag to the rebel bull.

If the ruling alliance does not bag a hefty share of the seats in the sugar belt of the west, it will be in trouble. Mumbai cannot make up the numbers on its own. The fear is not from the rival alliance as much as from the rebels.

A spectre now haunts the United Progressive Alliance. It is that of a House like that of 1995. The Congress was then the largest single party. But there were 45 Independent MLAs, the bulk of them rebel Congress leaders who promptly did deals with the saffron alliance.

A similar shift in social base if not in geographical spread may be under way among a key voting group: the Marathas. Spread across all the regions of the state, they have deep, historic ties with the Congress.

But many are unable to find a place in the sun as the alliance network covers all the seats in the state. Rebellion becomes a more attractive option, now that the NCP is effectively an appendage of the Congress.

The other populous region which may well see a shift and this time clearly in favour of the Shiv Sena-led grouping is Vidarbha. Long a Congress bastion, it saw a humiliating defeat last summer for the UPA, which led in only 17 of the 66 Assembly segments.

Here, one major problem for the ruling alliance is the rapid advance of the BSP. Mayavati has backed up an impressive performance in the general elections with a slate of candidates heavily weighted in favour of the Dalits. Though they make up only 11 per cent of the population, she has allocated to them a third of the seats.

Her hope is to consign the older Dalit party, the Republican Party of India, to the dustbin. In doing so, she may well raid the Congress vote bank and facilitate a victory for the BJP-Shiv Sena.

This is not as farfetched as it sounds. In 1995, the Third Front took 17 per cent of the votes: though it won only 23 seats, it ensured a defeat of the Congress. The BSP hopes to emerge as the decisive element in the third-party political space.

If the vote share of the smaller parties moves up, the Congress will be in trouble. This is the invisible element in the poll scene, difficult for pollsters to track but possibly crucial in the actual outcome.

The Congress cannot bank on western Maharashtra and the Shiv Sena on Mumbai. Both regions may become more marginal if the other parts of the state deliver a clear verdict.

The Congress no longer has the lion's share of the votes of any section of society. One problem has been the balancing of different interest groups: Marathas as opposed to the OBCs, savarnas as against the Dalits. None of this is new, but the fact of having an alliance reduces the leeway it once had.

The Shiv Sena-led front is counting on a strong performance in the relatively backward regions.

Its success hinges on Marathwada and Vidarbha to offset the erosion of seats in Mumbai and in the adjacent hinterland.

All in all, the established equations are changing across and within regions. The fight for power has seemed closer as voting day has drawn closer. One simple reason for this is that the polity is in a state of flux.

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