New Delhi: A confrontation between coalition partners, the Congress party and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), receded into the background last week following the death in a helicopter crash of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.
The focus will return to the dispute this week. The two parties are under pressure to resolve their differences over the sharing of seats in the Maharashtra state assembly election so that they have sufficient time to select candidates before the 25 September deadline for filing nominations.
The Congress, emboldened by its better-than-expected performance in the April-May Lok Sabha election, is seeking to contest more seats in the 288-member state assembly that goes to the polls on 13 October. In the 2004 assembly election, the Congress contested 166 seats and won 69 while the NCP fielded candidates in the remaining 122 and won 71 seats. In the recent parliamentary election, Congress won 18 Lok Sabha seats while the NCP, led by Sharad Pawar, managed to win just eight from Maharashtra.
Both sides have engaged in tough public posturing, at times even threatening to go their separate ways, but there are voices of caution in the Congress and NCP that are counselling prudence.
Some Congress leaders argue that the party should contest the October assembly election on its own, but political observers say such a stance may be a bargaining ploy.
“It is a strategy to enhance their bargaining power in the seat sharing. It is a fact that no national party can afford to ignore regional parties. In this case, Congress cannot afford to ignore the organizational network of the NCP in the state,” said Bidyut Chakrabarty, professor in the department of political science, Delhi University.
Indeed, many senior Congress party leaders, including A.K. Antony, the general secretary in charge of party affairs in Maharashtra, think breaking with the NCP may rebound on the party, said a Congress politician who didn’t want to be named.
These seniors say it would be risky to break the alliance with the NCP at a time that the state government is battling potential anti-incumbency in the elections and with rising food prices looming as a campaign issue.
A minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, who did not want to be identified, also said breaking the alliance just ahead of the elections may give an edge to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena, which have buried their differences and announced an electoral alliance in Maharashtra.
The Congress has appointed a committee headed by general secretary Digvijay Singh to interact with party functionaries in every district and report to Antony on fighting the Maharashtra election without an alliance partner.
Singh, who is seen as someone opposed to the alliance, had suggested that the NCP, a break-away group of the Congress, should merge with the parent party.
Congress officially said that was Singh’s personal view. Singh seems to have softened and is maintaining that the Congress was prepared to fight the upcoming assembly election in the state with the NCP.
An NCP leader, who didn’t want to be named, said party chief Pawar had told a meeting of the party’s core committee in Mumbai last week to prepare to contest 124 seats in the assembly.
Even the NCP appears to be considering a climbdown. “Congress leaders are suggesting that we could contest in 100-110 seats. We are ready to make some adjustments...,” said the same NCP leader.