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The game is open

The after-effects of the Modi tremors have now begun to be felt — not so much in governance or development as in the field of political competition. The 25-year-old alliance between the BJP and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra has been abandoned. The immediate provocation came from the Shiv Sena, though the BJP had been keenly driving the Sena to the brink.
In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, the BJP had surreptitiously tried to undercut the Sena by talking to its rival, the MNS. Later, the Sena was not happy with the portfolio it got in the Union cabinet. Finally, the two partners have decided to test their strength independently.

This has allowed the Congress and the NCP to break their uncomfortable coalition of 15 years. The “free-for-all” season has commenced in Maharashtra.
Following the 1999 split in the Congress, the assembly election  that year saw multi-cornered contests. But the two Congress parties quickly came together to form government and contested subsequent elections as a coalition. This gave the state’s politics an artificial bipolarity. With the breakup of both coalitions, the political field has suddenly opened up to the possibility of several future combinations of the four main players and the many smaller parties, which, so far, had to be content with manoeuvring within the framework of the two competing coalitions.
The past 25 years in Maharashtra had stunted competitive politics and imposed unnatural constraints on the players. The two main coalitions were awkward combines at best. The BJP-Sena duo adopted the garb of Hindutva as a convenient justification for coming together. Equally conveniently, the Congress-NCP combine justified the alliance in the name of secularism and development.
However, the real driver of both coalitions was the fact that, in the past few elections, no party had been in a position to win a majority. This had been the case since the 1990 assembly elections, when the Congress could not win a clear majority.
But soon after they were formed, the coalitions became uncomfortable burdens for the partners. When the Shiv Sena and the BJP entered into the alliance, both had a limited reach in the state. They had to first ease out the dilapidated Janata Dal and occupy the oppositional space. This was at a time that the BJP had no friends in national politics.
Its Maharashtra coalition was its first experiment of entering into an alliance, adopting a secondary role vis-à-vis a state party that was locally opposed to the Congress. Since 1990, the non-Congress opposition space in the state had been occupied by this alliance.
The “Maharashtra model” was later replicated in a number of states, such as Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Bihar. Thus, the NDA was born. But by 2004, the utility of the BJP-Sena coalition had been exhausted. The Shiv Sena could not help the BJP much in the 2004 and 2009 parliamentary elections and lost its value for the BJP. The split in the Sena also forced the BJP into a rethink about its ties.raised the slogan, “shatpratishat BJP (100 per cent BJP)”, in the state. But after some muscle flexing, it retreated and the coalition was saved. As a result of the alliance, the BJP could not expand in many parts, such as the Mumbai-Thane belt and the Konkan and Marathwada regions.
By 2004, complementarity exhausted, the continuation of the alliance meant that both partners had to compromise their expansion plans and remain limited forces in state politics. Despite the popular goodwill for it, the BJP-Sena combine consistently failed to make an impression as an opposition and thus contributed to the victory of the Congress-NCP coalition.


The story of the Congress-NCP alliance is even more interesting. In 1999, Sharad Pawar left the Congress for a second time to form a different party — in 1978, he had helped form the Congress (S) and now he formed the NCP. In October 1999, despite the NDA’s victory at the Centre, the BJP-Sena did not win a majority in the state. The two Congress parties came together because staying out of power for another five years would have been impossible for their followers, who look upon politics exclusively in terms of patronage and governmental power, to accept.
The Congress and the NCP stayed together because the BJP-Sena alliance left them without much choice. But their style of politics, patronage networks and social bases were mostly common. A coalition meant that they both had to curtail their ambition and share the political space. Neither partner brought any additional voters to the alliance that the other could not. Therefore, the coalition was marked by deep dissention, acrimony and mutual distrust.
During the 25 years of coalition politics, each social section got fragmented between two, often three, parties. Each region of the state threw up a different pattern of competition —  Congress vs BJP in Vidarbha, Congress vs Shiv Sena in Marathwada, NCP vs Congress in western Maharashtra, Shiv Sena vs NCP in Konkan and north Maharashtra and so on. This period witnessed the rise of smaller parties, which had support bases in just a couple of districts or, sometimes, in one particular caste community (as is the case with the Rashtriya Samaj Party).
Ironic as it may seem, the politics of coalitions was a life-saver for the Congress in Maharashtra. But along with the NCP, it let the opportunity slip — both parties failed the governance test and also refused to use the chance to build their party organisations.
With the breakdown of neat bipolarity, Maharashtra politics is now poised to enter the next phase of a post-Congress polity, which is characterised by the corrosion of pre-existing social bases, rise of single-leader parties, absence of a clear agenda accompanied by a proliferation of parties, and false promises made by the new alternatives.
For the time being, Maharashtra is going to be an arena of intrigue, uncertainty and intense competition, expressed through unprecedented indiscipline and “partylessness”. Localism of an extreme nature will mark the elections and post-election considerations. The long years of coalitions not only stunted the potential and aspirations of parties, but they also camouflaged the fragmentation of their social bases and their inadequacies.
Therefore, the coming assembly election will be yet another step towards the dismantling of existing patterns before new ones  emerge in politics and in social support bases. While the field of competition opens up, instead of policy issues and day-to-day concerns dominating electoral politics, it will be overshadowed, in the short run, by personal fiefdoms and considerations of immediate gain.

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