The twin challenges of the Maharashtra Assembly elections coming up in about four months and a rampaging Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena alliance carrying the momentum of the Lok Sabha polls into the state have cast a shadow over the 20th foundation day celebrations of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to be held on 10 June.
The current situation is proving to be an “unfamiliar" experience for a party that has spent 15 of the 20 years of its existence enjoying power, admitted a top NCP leader and former state cabinet minister, who has been a member of the party since 1999.
“We are clearly in an unfamiliar phase. The party was formed in June 1999 when the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in Maharashtra were a few months away. By October that year, we were in power in Maharashtra though the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) returned to power at the centre. However, in 2004, when the NDA lost in the general elections both at the centre and in Maharashtra again, the NCP was part of the ruling dispensation in Delhi and in Mumbai till 2014. Like for most non-BJP political parties in India, 2014 was a watershed year for the NCP too," said the NCP leader, requesting anonymity.
The NCP had won 58 of the total 288 seats in the 1999 Assembly elections, with a 22.6% vote share, fighting both the Congress and the BJP-Shiv Sena combine.
“The phase from 1999 to 2014 made us a party of power and many of our workers have not experienced what it feels to be in opposition. It is difficult for them and some leaders also to adjust to this new phase," the NCP leader cited above said.
“The NCP has been reduced to a moribund organization in Maharashtra. Nearly all major and numerically strong castes and communities have left the NCP for the BJP or the Shiv Sena. In its stronghold of western Maharashtra, the Marathas and their leaders have shifted their loyalty to the BJP. In Marathwada, too, the Maratha voters and Other Backward Classes have deserted the NCP. It has lost its utility in Maharashtra’s cooperative sector that it once controlled and drew its strength from. The party needs a rejuvenation plan but lacks even a survival plan," said Prakash Pawar, professor of political science at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University.
Kolhapur, the very citadel of Maratha power where NCP was dominant, was won by the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in the general elections.
In 1999, the Lok Sabha elections were held along with the Assembly polls in Maharashtra and the NCP won eight Lok Sabha seats, including six in the state. It won nine and eight Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra in 2004 and 2009 and won the Assembly elections along with the Congress in those years.
However, in 2014, the NCP’s Lok Sabha tally fell to four and in the Assembly elections in October of that year, it won a mere 41 seats. After 2014, there has been a consistent shift of NCP leaders and workers to the BJP or the Shiv Sena. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it won only four seats and, for the first time, a member of the Pawar family lost an election, when Ajit Pawar’s son Parth suffered a crushing defeat in Maval constituency.
Earlier this month, media reports appeared about NCP’s likely merger with the Congress. The NCP rejected the speculation and senior leaders, including Sharad Pawar, asked the rank and file to prepare for the Assembly polls.
However, Prakash Pawar said the merger would be a good option for the NCP at this stage. “It may offer an opportunity to revive the party. To be able to survive and rejuvenate, the NCP needs to imagine and present a new and coherent ideological programme that appeals to voters. Sharad Pawar is perhaps aware of this challenge, but is too tired to lead this transformation and I do not see anyone else in the NCP who is equipped with a similar ability to reimagine the party’s future," Prakash Pawar said.