By Amulya Ganguli
This month's assembly elections in Maharashtra may well prove to be one of the most acrimonious contests in recent memory.
Since the parting of close associates invariably arouses considerable antagonism, there is nothing surprising about the present hostility between the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the end of their 25-year-old partnership, and between the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which have called off their 15-year-old ties.
Hence the Shiv Sena's charge that the BJP has "backstabbed" it and the Congress accusation that the inordinate ambitions of NCP leader Ajit Pawar led to the collapse of the alliance between the two parties.
But even as these barbs and counter-barbs are expected to continue, what is worrying is the possibility that the battle may acquire a Marathi vs Gujarati overtone.
Given the rancorous background of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, which led to the division of the bi-lingual Bombay state into Maharashtra and Gujarat in 1960, there is no denying the presence of an element of tension between the two communities.
Moreover, since the Shiv Sena's appeal is based on mobilizing the Marathi manoos (people), the party will undoubtedly bank heavily on such parochial sentiments to boost its prospects.
Sensing an opportunity to muddy the waters in this respect, Narayan Rane of the Congress has said the BJP may lure away investors from Mumbai to Ahmedabad.
Since this is the Shiv Sena's first shot at attaining power on its own under its new leader, Uddhav Thackeray (whose desire to be chief minister is said to be one reason for the rupture with the BJP), the party, which has a reputation for thuggery, is likely to pull out all the stops to grab power.
This will be all the more so if the BJP launches some kind of an electoral blitzkrieg with Narendra Modi addressing 20-odd rallies in the state. Such an operation cannot but be regarded by the Shiv Sena as a direct challenge to its prestige since it has never been an ardent admirer of the strongman from Gujarat.
Bal Thackeray, for instance, had favoured Sushma Swaraj as the National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) prime ministerial candidate and Uddhav has rarely wasted an opportunity to say that the so-called Modi wave is a chimera as the election results in Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal showed.
If the BJP outruns the Shiv Sena in a state which the latter considers its balliwick, the blow to its position, and especially to that of Uddhav, will be considerable since it will show that the party is on a downhill slope after Balaseheb's death.
The animus between the Shiv Sena and the BJP will grow if there are signs that the latter is cozying up to the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) led by Uddhav's cousin, Raj, with whom the former has a hot-and-cold relationship.
Raj, however, may have botched his chances by overplaying the parochial card by saying that he will call for autonomy for Maharashtra although he did clarify that this will not mean independence.
However, under his version of autonomy, the state will run its own railways and have total control over employment, which means that he will push for his favourite sons-of-the-soil theory which had led to MNS cadres assaulting taxi drivers, vegetable vendors and others from north India some months ago.
The BJP's problem, however, is that the untimely deaths of Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde have left it without a possible chief ministerial candidate, especially since Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari is believed to be unwilling to return to the troublesome provincial backwaters.
This vacuum has seemingly persuaded Gopinath's daughter, Pankaja, to throw her hat into the ring but her newness to politics will be a disadvantage.
The BJP will have to depend almost entirely, therefore, on Modi if it wants to cross the winning line. But whether what was an advantage in the parliamentary polls with a different set of expectations will benefit the party in an assembly election is difficult to say.
This may be one reason why the BJP has generally been more restrained in its utterances than the Shiv Sena and has even kept its options open for a post-poll alliance with its former ally. The fact that the Shiv Sena hasn't been in a hurry to recall its sole member in the union cabinet, Anant Geete, nor has the BJP insisted on his withdrawal, is not without significance.
Of the four major contenders, the Congress is hamstrung by the fact that it is suffering from the anti-incumbency factor because of outgoing chief minister Prithviraj Chavan's propensity to sit on files. But his clean image is a plus point.
The Congress' problem is that it has no effective speaker, with neither Sonia nor Rahul Gandhi being expected to breathe new life into the moribund organization.
Interestingly, Maharashtra is the second state after Bihar where the NDA has split. In Bihar, the BJP suffered a setback in the by-elections as it also did in Uttar Pradesh. But this may not happen in the Maharashtra assembly polls where the stakes for the parties as well as the people are much higher.