This promised to be the mother of all battles, but died at birth.
The plans of the Congress to exploit the rift within the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Maharashtra legislative council polls seems to have boomeranged, due to discord within the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA). The Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) put their foot down, to ensure that the Congress had to go back on its decision to field a second candidate, which would have otherwise forced an election.
The nine seats to the Maharashtra legislative council are going to the polls. Chief Minister and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray will contest his maiden election, defusing the Constitutional crisis looming large on his government as he was not a member of either house of the legislature almost six months after coming to power.
While the Shiv Sena and NCP decided to field two candidates each (Uddhav and council Deputy Chairperson Dr Neelam Gorhe and Shashikant Shinde and Amol Mitkari, respectively), the Congress was left with just one seat, as the BJP had nominated four candidates.
The Congress announced the candidature of Rajesh Rathod, who belongs to the Banjara community, which has a presence in parts of Vidarbha and Marathwada.
Rathod, the son of former MLC Dhondiram Rathod, is said to be a nominee of Revenue Minister Balasaheb Thorat, who is also the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) President.
After Rathod's nomination was announced on Saturday, the Congress sprung a surprise by declaring a second candidate — Rajkishore 'Papa' Modi.
The man, who shares a surname with the Prime Minister, is a Congress leader from Beed district in Marathwada, and heads the district unit. Modi, who controls educational institutions in and around the pilgrimage entre of Ambejogai, is said to be in the good books of senior BJP leader and former Rural Development Minister Pankaja Munde and her Beed MP-sister Dr Pritam Munde.
Pankaja, the daughter of senior BJP leader, late Gopinath Munde, faced a shock defeat in the recent assembly polls, and was in the contention for a legislative council nomination, along with other senior leaders like Eknath Khadse, Chandrashekhar Bavankule and Vinod Tawade.
But, the BJP sprang a surprise by nominating a set of four fresh faces (Ranjitsinh Mohite Patil, Pravin Datke, Gopichand Padalkar and Dr Ajit Gopchade), in a decision that had a heavy imprint of former Chief Minister and incumbent Leader of Opposition Devendra Fadnavis. Pankaja and Khadse, who were in the reckoning but eventually lost out, are seen as Fadnavis' rivals within the party, and had once pitched themselves as chief ministerial aspirants.
Congress leaders claimed that by forcing a poll, they could split the BJP's votes in the secret ballot, in a setback to the later. The Congress, as a senior leader admitted, contended on the support of legislators from the anti-Fadnavis lobby to sail through, and was hence "confident of a win".
The MVA counts on the support of 171 legislators in the 288-member legislative assembly, which forms the electoral college for this poll. If an election were to take place on May 21, a candidate would need to garner a quota of 28.8 preference votes to sail through.
In the past, legislative council elections have thrown up nasty surprises. In 2010, the Shiv Sena's Anil Parab, who is now the Transport Minister in the Thackeray regime, and is one of Uddhav's close confidantes, was defeated by a Congress-supported independent Vijay Sawant. In 2006, the Shiv Sena, which was on the backfoot after then leader of Opposition Narayan Rane, who was its former Chief Minister, quit to join the Congress (Sena leaders maintain he was thrown out), had faced a similar setback.
Then, the Shiv Sena's Vijay Loke was trounced by Rane's nominee and Congress candidate Rajan Teli.
Congress leaders claimed they were sure of their ability to bring in the extra votes to score a win and turn the tables on the BJP.
However, the Shiv Sena and NCP took umbrage to the decision of the Congress to field another nominee, with Uddhav reportedly threatening to even abstain from the poll. Eventually, the Congress had to capitulate a day after announcing it's candidates, with just Rathod being left in the fray. This will ensure that all nine nominees are elected unopposed.
Shiv Sena and NCP leaders felt that forcing an election would be bad optics at a time when Maharashtra is fighting an uphill battle against the coronavirus. With the chief minister in the fray, the Sena wanted to ensure he was elected unopposed instead of facing a poll fight.
The spread of the disease, disgruntlement among ministers at what is perceived to be a bureaucrat-run regime, and an unseemly confrontation among senior IAS officials that led to the transfer of Mumbai civic chief Pravinsinh Pardeshi, have already taken some sheen off the government.
In case of an election, ensuring that 288 members of the legislative assembly could travel to Mumbai and vote in the middle of a pandemic would have been a logistical and public health nightmare.
Though the Congress may have retreated for now, the last word on this episode may not have been said so far.
The Congress feels that it has been pushed to the margins by the Shiv Sena and the NCP. It is upset at the NCP, which has already walked off with most of the plum portfolios, dominating the government.
In the recent Rajya Sabha elections, the Congress was forced to give up on its demand for two seats. While the NCP got two of its nominees, elected to the upper house of Parliament, the Shiv Sena and Congress had to be content with one each.
The Congress was said to be insisting on contesting two legislative council, with the NCP fighting from just one, but the demand was rejected.
Congress leaders admit in private conversations that the decision to join hands with a "communal" party like the Shiv Sena was not an easy one as it stood the risk of alienating its core votebase.
A faction loyal to former Congress President Rahul Gandhi is said to be upset at the decision, more so, as the Congress and Sena cannot see eye-to-eye on a range of issues like Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).
The Congress may have withdrawn from the fray for now, but as is evident, the bitterness at this obvious loss of face will linger on, as will the feeling of being short-changed.
The future of this unlikely, expedient alliance may depend on the relationship between the Shiv Sena and NCP with the Congress in the weeks to come.
(The author is a journalist and author of the book 'The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the shadow of their Senas'. Views are personal)