Amravati / Mumbai / Bhiwandi: The absence of a single issue to unify the Maharashtra electorate has made the 13 October elections too close to call, and reduced the scope for political opponents to benefit from the anti-incumbency factor in a state ruled for 10 years by the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance.

The small picture: A campaign scene in Yavatmal constituency. Issues such as unemployment, spiralling prices of food, power crisis and inadequate prices for farm produce have receded to the background. Ashesh Shah / Mint

Issues specific to the 288 assembly constituencies, rather than a pan-Maharashtra theme binding all regions of the state, have dominated the campaign in the state of 96 million people. The presence of several rebel candidates and small parties in the fray has made the election murkier.

“The completely fractured political identity of this elections is because there is no single issue or a cluster of issues that bind all the constituencies together," said Kumar Ketkar, editor of the Marathi daily Loksatta. “There is absolutely no connectivity between issues of various constituencies."

The anti-incumbency factor that all ruling parties dread has also lost its sting. While the Congress-NCP alliance indeed has to deal with anti-incumbency, the opposition Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) combine also isn’t immune to it, given that the two control civic bodies of important cities.

Although voters across the state say that the coalition government had failed to resolve core concerns or address basic governance issues, they do not seem to be significant in a campaign overshadowed by ego clashes between political personalities and featuring party rebels more determined to undermine rivals rather than ensure their own victory.

Issues such as unemployment, spiralling prices of food and other essential commodities, a deepening power crisis and inadequate prices for farm produce have receded to the background.

“This government has not done anything for the farmer" is a common complaint. Farmers also complain what they earn from their produce is eroded by payments to middlemen and relief packages promised to the drought-hit and debt-ridden haven’t reached them. “We have not got any relief. They kept talking about it in the Lok Sabha elections, but it has not come to us yet," says Subhas Jadith, a farmer in Arvi constituency, who borrowed Rs16,000 in 2007, which remains unpaid.

But farmers seem unsure about where to direct such frustration in a state where 57.5% of the population live in rural areas.

Apart from 92 political parties, 10,000 independent candidates are in the electoral fray, many of whom are rebels from the leading parties—an indication of the fading influence of political leaders and disintegration of party structures.

“Eighty per cent of the people in the constituencies are from my community (weaver community) and yet the Congress refused to give me a ticket despite assurances till the last minute," says Rashid Tahir, a former Congress legislator and now a candidate of the Republican Left Democratic Front (RLDF), representing the Samajwadi Party from Bhiwandi West.

No political party is as well organized as it was 10 years ago, says Suhas Palshikar, a political science professor and researcher at the University of Pune. “I think it is for the political parties’ convenience that no common issues are there," Palshikar says. “So that in the confusion, with too many issues and candidates in the fray, they can wriggle out without addressing the core issues."

A senior Congress minister, who did not want to be identified, blamed NCP chief and Maharashtra veteran Sharad Pawar for the “rebel politics" in the state.

“Fielding rebels in the constituencies where he wants the Congress to lose was a game played by Pawar in the 2004 assembly election. This time, Congressmen are also using that tactic against the NCP," he said.

In 2004, while the Congress contested 157 seats and won 69, the NCP fought 124 and secured 71.

The NCP’s poor performance in the April-May general election—it won only eight of the 22 Lok Sabha seats it contested while the Congress won 17 of 26—has forced the NCP to surrender to Congress pressure and agree to fight 114 from seats, 10 fewer than it did in 2004.

In the opposition alliance, the BJP has 119 and Shiv Sena 169 candidates in the fray.

The RLDF, the Third Front comprising 17 political parties including some former allies of the Congress, is contesting 200 seats while Uttar Pradesh’s ruling Bahujan Samaj Party, which claims a fairly good support base in the Vidarbha region, has fielded candidates in all 288 constituencies.

The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which is expected to eat into the vote share of its parent party the Shiv Sena as well as the Congress in the Mumbai-Thane region, which accounts for 60 assembly constituencies, has put up candidates for 145 assembly seats.

In the April-May Lok Sabha elections, there was not much of a difference between the vote shares of the main parties. While the Congress had a vote share of 19.61%, the BJP had 19.17%, the NCP 19.28% and the Shiv Sena 17%. Candidates of the ruling parties downplay issues such as the shortage of electricity that is causing outages that last as long as 6 hours in many rural areas.

The rationing of electricity “is a universal issue", says Yashomati Thakur, the Congress candidate from Teosa in Amravati district. “Gujarat has it, Madhya Pradesh has it and Maharashtra also has it."

Thakur, a Youth Congress leader, is running for election on the promise of creating new civic bodies and heritage centres for the constituency’s development.

“In our neighbouring states such as Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the elections were won over the development plank and also on welfare measures. But in Maharashtra, voters do not even know that Sharad Pawar’s NCP has offered rice at Rs2 per kg," says Anil Agarwal, editor of the Amaravati Mandal.

But the opposition has a different take. “There are undercurrents in favour of us (BJP-Shiv Sena) thanks to the misrule of the Congress-NCP. The anger among the voters over the unemployment, price rise and the power cuts will be reflected in the voting," says Ravi Kalkonde, BJP vice-president in Amravati district.

Palshikar compares this election with the one in 1995 when around 30 independents won and played a crucial role in the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance coming to power. Senior Congress leaders admitted that this election could throw up a similar verdict.

“The victorious rebels and the smaller parties could decide who would form the government," a party general secretary said on condition of anonymity. With no single issue to unify them, each constituency has become a separate battleground.

In Teosa constituency, where Thakur is seeking election, the ruling alliance votes are divided between Thakur and an NCP rebel who is contesting against her. In two constituencies under the Bhiwandi parliamentary constituency and in Amravati, where President Pratibha Patil’s son Rajendra Singh Shekhawat is in the fray, the ruling party votes are clearly divided.

“It’s a fractured battle between the Congress, Shiv Sena and rebels across parties," said member of Parliament from Bhiwandi Suresh Tawre.