Is the INDIA bloc hoping to pull off a Maharashtra in Delhi?

Former union minister Sharad Pawar, the grand master of coalition politics, is said to be among those biding their time and waiting to step in when the moment is right.
Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar and Akhilesh Yadav seen during the INDIA bloc meeting at the residence of Mallikarjun Kharge.
Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar and Akhilesh Yadav seen during the INDIA bloc meeting at the residence of Mallikarjun Kharge.(Express | Shekhar Yadav)

So, it's official. Narendra Modi is returning to the helm for the third time after the NDA parliamentary meet endorsed him wholeheartedly on Friday.

The garland for the Prime Minister at the event might have included Aparajita (invincible) flowers, used to worship Shakti. However, the cloak of invincibility that covered Modi after the previous two elections has disappeared, with the BJP's seat tally slipping to 240.

All it will take now is for a few allies to be rubbed the wrong way, and the INDIA alliance might find an opportunity to form the government.

For its part, the opposition alliance is keeping communication channels open.

TMC MPs Abhishek Banerjee and Derek O'Brien met Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray at his residence, Matoshree, in Mumbai on Thursday night, and Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Akhilesh Yadav in New Delhi on Friday.

Sources said that at the Matoshree meeting, it was decided that Akhilesh would keep the conversation going with Nitish Kumar, a close friend of his late father. "The INDIA bloc believes that the NDA will not survive long as the BJP has proven deadly for regional parties," SP spokesperson Ghanshyam Tiwari told The New Indian Express. He added that he would not be surprised if Akhilesh has already spoken to Nitish Kumar or even Naidu.

"There was a meeting between Naidu and DMK leader Stalin too. There will be more interactions that are not in the public eye," Tiwari revealed.

Fissures within BJP and fears of a Faustian bargain

There is also buzz that all is not well within the BJP itself after the diminished showing. Another source mentioned that alliance partners, particularly the regional parties led by Naidu and Nitish, are aware they might be entering a Faustian bargain and will remain wary. This keeps possibilities open.

"It must be remembered that Akhilesh was keen to field Nitish Kumar from Uttar Pradesh when the latter was part of the INDIA alliance and to promote him as the Prime Ministerial candidate. Due to the Congress's indecision over the convener post of the INDIA alliance, Nitish opted out and returned to the NDA, under whose umbrella JD(U) has now won 12 Lok Sabha seats in Bihar. This means Congress is in no position to negotiate with the Bihar CM, but the regional parties can lead negotiations whenever the opportunity arises," a source said.

Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar and Akhilesh Yadav seen during the INDIA bloc meeting at the residence of Mallikarjun Kharge.
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Wait and watch

Former union minister Sharad Pawar, the architect of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra, is also biding his time. With friends across the political spectrum, many expect the grand master of coalition politics to wait until the moment is right. For now, he and other INDIA alliance members believe that any desperation to form the government might be seen as opportunistic.

Also, both the TDP and JD(U) have conveyed that their first priority is to form the government with the BJP, provided all their demands are met. Besides portfolios and posts, they want a common minimum agenda for the NDA, including the scrapping of the much-criticised Agniveer program, the holding of caste surveys, giving four percent reservations to Muslims, and special economic packages for Bihar and Andhra Pradesh.

"If the BJP leadership refuses to accept these primary demands, the TDP and JD(U) have assured INDIA alliance partners that they will be open to discussion," another source said.

Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar and Akhilesh Yadav seen during the INDIA bloc meeting at the residence of Mallikarjun Kharge.
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A senior leader from the INDIA bloc said their current tally is 242, including support from two independent MPs. The remaining 30 MPs can be found if the 12 MPs of JD(U), 16 MPs of TDP, and two MPs of film actor Pawan Kalyan switch sides. The leader also claimed that four MPs from the Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena are ready to switch sides if necessary.

"We are closely watching the developing political situation. We also want to see how the RSS and old-timer BJP Lok Sabha MPs react to the Modi-Shah plan. The Congress is also not in a hurry but has assured us that it is ready to be part of the government from within or outside if needed. Rahul Gandhi is not keen on power like Modi and Shah. He is ready to make sacrifices for the larger cause, but his only condition is that the social justice agenda should be implemented," he said.

Echoes of what happened in 2022 in Maharashtra

This readiness to wait and see how the bargains with the NDA play out echoes the events that led to the formation of the MVA in Maharashtra.

In the 2019 Assembly elections there, the BJP emerged as the single largest party with 105 MLAs in the 288-member state assembly, while the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena ended up with 56 MLAs.

"Remember the BJP and Shiv Sena combined had more seats than required for a simple majority then, but things went pear shaped when Uddhav Thackeray reminded BJP of the power-sharing agreement and the promise of the Chief Minister's post. The BJP had refused to accept this, and that gave Sharad Pawar the opportunity to step in and stitch together the MVA," a political observer recalled.

"The same kind of events could unfold in Delhi. If the BJP refuses to fulfill the demands of the TDP and JD(U), then Sharad Pawar and other Opposition leaders will have their opportunity. It will be interesting to see if or when there is an MVA in the making in Delhi. The other possibility is for the BJP to avoid its Maharashtra mistake and accommodate its allies' demands," he suggested.

Akhilesh Yadav, Sharad Pawar and Akhilesh Yadav seen during the INDIA bloc meeting at the residence of Mallikarjun Kharge.
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