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With the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena parting ways, it is a five-cornered contest in Maharashtra assembly polls  this time around, with Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena returning to the fray. Photo: Hindustan Times
With the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena parting ways, it is a five-cornered contest in Maharashtra assembly polls this time around, with Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena returning to the fray. Photo: Hindustan Times

The curious case of independents in Maharashtra politics

With a five-way contest in the upcoming assembly polls, some independent MLAs might play a critical role in govt formation

New Delhi: Last Thursday, Maharashtra saw a realignment of its political forces when two erstwhile alliances—the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena—decided to part ways and contest the forthcoming state assembly elections on their own strengths.

The events triggered an open, five-cornered contest, with Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) returning to the fray. However, as history shows, some seats in the state could be witnessing six-cornered races, with the joker of the pack being the independent candidate.

Who exactly are these independents?

Independents getting elected to Maharashtra’s legislative assembly is not new. We can broadly categorize them into party rebels, upstarts, associate independents, rejects and truly independent leaders with no party affiliations (tribal leaders in some cases).

A tactical rebel, Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil went on to win the Malshiras seat in 1980. More often than not, the winning rebel candidates become the party’s official candidates for the next elections. The other, most common example of a tactical rebel is when a party puts one of its weaker leaders as an independent candidate, essentially to cut/split votes.

Then there are upstarts, who begin their careers as independents and evolve into political heavyweights. The most prominent one is a certain former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, Chhagan Bhujbal, who won his first election as an independent from Mazgaon in 1985. There are other associate independents, some of whom are backed by a political party or, in some cases, contest on their symbols. Then there are strong and truly independent leaders, eg; tribal leaders who have no political affiliations but have a strong hold over their constituency. And lastly, we have what we would call rejects, who try their luck with every major political party and when rejected, contest as an independent candidate.

Why do they matter?

(a) Vote share:

There have been independent MLAs in Maharashtra since its first assembly election. In 1962, 15 independents got elected in the 264-member assembly, with a combined vote share of 16.74%. There was a total of 437 candidates in the fray. Five years later, in 1967, when the strength of the assembly was increased to 270, their tally increased by one seat, and the combined vote-share of the 463 candidates in contention was 14.57%.

Their tally increased in 1972, when 23 independents made it to the assembly with only 12.68% vote share. In 1978, out of the 894 independents who contested, 28 got elected into the 288-member assembly, being beneficiaries of an anti-Congress wave that swept the nation the year before. The independents conjured up a combined vote share of 14.06%. In 1978, former chief minister of Maharashtra Shankarrao Chavan contested as an independent candidate from Bokhar and won.

Two years later, in 1980, when the Congress (I) swept back to power, a total of 10 independents were elected. With 612 independents in contention, they managed a combined vote share of 8.03%— the lowest in Maharashtra’s history. In 1985, a then record 1,506 independent candidates contested, with 20 emerging victorious. Collectively, independents managed their highest ever vote-share of 17.06%. The 1985 polls also witnessed the second time when a former chief minister, A.R. Antulay in this case, contested independently and won from Shriwardhan in Maharashtra’s Konkan region.

(b) Role in government formation

The 1990 assembly elections would change Maharashtra’s political landscape for good, especially as far as independents were concerned. The Congress, in 1990, fell just short of the majority mark, winning 141 out of 288 seats. Sharad Pawar, with the help of 12 of the 13 elected independent MLAs, was sworn in as the chief minister of Maharashtra.

In 1995, the Congress witnessed an unprecedented rebellion in Maharashtra, when a dispute between prime minister Narasimha Rao and Sharad Pawar threatened to split the Congress. Pawar masterminded a strategy where Congress rebels were fielded against official party candidates backed by Rao. While the 1995 polls witnessed the highest number of independents ever to contest in Maharashtra (3,196), a record 45 independents managed to get elected, of which 35 were Congress rebels. Eighteen “rebel" independents were elected from Western Maharashtra (or the sugar/cooperative belt), where Pawar had a stranglehold. With the Shiv Sena-BJP combine falling just short of majority, it sought the support of some independents who helped form its first ever government in Maharashtra. These independents were rewarded with ministerial berths, some of whom included Harshvardhan Patil (now Congress), Anil Deshmukh (now NCP), Ajitrao Ghorpade (now BJP) and Vijaykumar Gavit (now BJP via NCP). One of the biggest upsets in the 1995 polls included a defeat for Congress stalwart Patangrao Kadam, who was defeated by Sampatrao Deshmukh, a rebel Congressman who contested as an independent from Bhilwadi Wangi.

In 1999, independents played an important role in government formation yet again, when the Congress and its breakaway, the newly-formed NCP contested separately. Twelve independents out of 837 (mostly rebels) were elected to the assembly, and yet again, became crucial to a post-poll alliance between the Congress and the NCP. With support, and promised ministerial berths, these independents helped form the “Democratic Front" government in Maharashtra. Five years later, in the 2004 assembly polls, 1,083 independents were in the fray, of which 19 were successful. The combined vote-share of independents rose from 9.49% in 1999 to 14.05% in 2004. Among the successful independents were Prataprao Chikhalikar, an aide of late Vilasrao Deshmukh, former chief minister of Maharashtra, and former minister Babanrao Pachpute, who won from Shrigonda. In 2009, as the Congress-NCP alliance was facing its two-term anti-incumbency, another set of rebels emerged, mostly from the NCP. The 1,820 independents in fray secured a vote share of 15.50%, a marginal increase from 2004, with 24 independent MLAs emerging victorious. Vasai became the first constituency in Maharashtra to elect an independent for a fourth successive term. Another rebel, who made headlines last time around—Sunil Deshmukh, was a sitting Congress MLA from Amravati. But the party chose to field ex-President Pratibha Patil’s son, Rajendra (Raosaheb) Shekhawat. Shekhawat went on to win the seat.

Independents key this time

With an open contest this time around, some independent MLAs might have a critical role to play in government formation. While all major contenders have opted to go alone, and each party having over 200 seats to allot, chances of a major rebellion seem minimal. However, several Congress and NCP rebels, including ministers and sitting MLAs have flocked to the BJP ahead of the upcoming polls, with most of them being rewarded with a ticket.

All eyes will be on Karad South, where former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan is contesting on a Congress ticket. The sitting seven-time Congress MLA Vilas Undalkar has turned rebel, and is contesting as an independent, backed by the NCP. The BJP candidate Atul Bhosale is a former Congress rebel and the Shiv Sena candidate for Karad is Ajeenkya Patil, son of Bihar governor and former Congress leader, D.Y. Patil.

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