It is almost as if May 2004 never happened. What was then hailed as a "landmark election" and a "historic verdict" doesn't rate a blip on the political radar today. Take Maharashtra, for instance. It needed the final week of an election campaign to force the most minimal attention, if that, towards the real issues people worry about.

Prior to this last lap, it was not much different from March-April, with May being a rude, if brief, interruption. Everyone had gone back to whatever they were doing earlier. The Bharatiya Janata Party was back to its "core values" (delightful as those are). The Shiv Sena had gone back to its internal divisions and finding out whether it is a Hindutva party or a regional one. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was back to "reviving Enron." The Vishwa Hindu Parishad has gone all the way back to Afzal Khan. The Congress has gone back to being, well, the Congress. The media are largely back to India Shining.

And the truly courageous have gone back to forecasting election results.

The level of campaign and debate in the Maharashtra election has not unduly taxed the intellect. One leading rebel candidate arrives in his would-be constituency in a toy train. (That happens to be his poll symbol.) A group of Congress-NCP rebels adopts the "cup and saucer" as its own symbol, the significance of which remains a mystery. A leading family of western Maharashtra has three "official candidates" and two "rebels" in the fray. Talk of a win-win situation. Several "official" party leaders at the local level openly campaign for the "rebels."

Rebellion is a profitable business in Maharashtra. The more so if you belong to the Congress. Firstly, you get expelled. Then you're made a Minister. This is a sure shot if rebels and "independents" hold the balance in a hung Assembly. It would be funny if it were not tragic. Since most of the rebels are from their camps, the Congress-NCP would find it easier to form the government if the polls result in a split verdict.

Rebellion is a profitable business in Maharashtra. The more so if you belong to the Congress. Firstly, you get expelled. Then you're made a Minister.
The danger to the Congress on election eve comes from Vidharbha and Marathwada, particularly the former. In the Lok Sabha polls, the Sena-BJP led in 46 of 66 Assembly segments here. And the Bahujan Samaj Party grabbed around 7 per cent of the vote, destroying the Congress-NCP in several Lok Sabha constituencies. Losing 10 of the region's 11 seats was a huge setback for the latter.

A few things have happened since then that most Congressmen see as having turned the tide. Firstly, Sonia Gandhi's meetings in the region have drawn huge numbers, even bigger than earlier. A couple were massive. The prestige she earned after turning down the Prime Minister's post remains intact. Secondly, the return of some of its rebels from the BSP also cheers the Congress. Third, there is now a Congress Government at the Centre. Fourth, the Krishi Mantri is Sharad Pawar, a fact the combine hopes will not be lost on farmers. Fifth, the BJP and the Shiv Sena seem gripped by paralysis. And lastly, Bal Thackeray's campaign has been severely curtailed by ill-health.

At any other time, this election should have been a walkover for the Shiv Sena-BJP. Had the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls been held together, the Congress-NCP would surely have lost the State. And more Lok Sabha seats as well. But the alliance draws comfort from the fact that there has almost never been such a lacklustre campaign from the Shiv Sena in an Assembly poll. The Shiv Sena struggles with defining itself. Is it an anti-outsider party that baits, amongst others, the North Indians of Mumbai? Or is it a Hindutva party that embraces and co-opts them? The first of these stands proved costly in May. The second alienates some of their core support. Also, the Raj-Udhav Thackeray rivalry is real and serious.

The BJP seems disoriented after its May drubbing. No one even whispers of a "Vajpayee factor." Loss of power at the Centre seems to have robbed it of its aggressiveness. More, unlike their rivals, the Shiv Sena and the BJP do not exist in every pocket and corner of the State. So they have not capitalised as well as they might have on the disastrous Congress rule of these past five years. All this, especially Ms. Gandhi's performance in Vidharbha, does help her party greatly.

Yet the bottom could drop out of the whole game in that very region. It's one where millions have experienced intense misery for some time now. Many Vidharbha farmers have seen three sowings this season. The second and third were done at much higher costs as scarcity and racketeering doubled input prices. Crop loss, despair and suicides by farmers have marked the region.

And though some "rebels" have returned, the BSP remains a threat to the prospects of the Congress-NCP. This is the small party that could make the big difference. Many tend to write off the BSP since it is not seen as a seat-winning force. The truth is that the party aims more at percentage of votes, not seats, in this election. Should it raise its vote share even marginally, it could sink the Congress.

The BSP has chewed into the Republican Party of India vote. It has used its "U.P. model" to select its candidates. Very few of the 66 it has put up in Vidharbha are Dalits. But it has nominated many Kunbis, Adivasis, Telis and others. And almost all the eight Dalits it has put up are Mahars. That's a move aimed at such voters as are left with the RPI which has its major base in that group.

For the Congress to win, it has to hold off the "Elephant" in Vidharbha. And if it cannot, it has to make up the losses of that region in Mumbai-Konkan and western Maharashtra. Not at all an easy task. Made more difficult by the fact that the Congress has parted ways with most potential allies. And by the reality that its tie-up with the NCP has meant both parties having far fewer seats to satisfy their members with. Hence, the large numbers of rebels. Beyond Vidharbha, the alliance also faces problems in Marathwada and Khandesh.

Of the 288 seats in the State Assembly, the Left, the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) and other small parties could win around 10 seats between them. "Rebels" and "independents" could take up to another 25. And there are perhaps three mavericks (like Arun Gawli) for whom wins seem assured. So the real battle is over some 250 seats. What proportion of that number will go to each of the fronts?

Many Vidharbha farmers have seen three sowings this season. The second and third were done at much higher costs as scarcity and racketeering doubled input prices. Crop loss, despair and suicides by farmers have marked the region.
With many changes and some still under way, Maharashtra poll reading might need a New Math. Communal issues seem to have cut no ice in this season. Work and livelihood concerns seem far more in people's minds, if not in those of the parties. This election could also mark the near-extinction of political forces that have been around for a while. For some of the smaller RPI factions, the party could well be over. Some have been given no seats at all by the Congress-NCP. Others struggled to find candidates for the seats they were given.

The Shetkari Sanghatana of Sharad Joshi, too, is now consigned to the far margins of a State it once boasted it would dominate. It will find it hard to win the four seats the BJP has given it. And the Samajwadi Party, though it might cause an upset in one or two places, is all but done for.

It could also be Mr. Sharad Pawar's last show if ill-health continues to dog him. One thing that did have the Sena-BJP perking up was his defeat in the BCCI election. It's interesting how far into the rural regions that story has gone, whatever its impact might be. The more important factor connected with him, however, is the rebel industry. A phenomenon once nurtured by Mr. Pawar has now come home to roost. The genie is out of the bottle and won't go back in.

The Prakash Ambedkar-led RPI faction also faces a tough future. However, this is one faction that has fought the Congress for some years now. So the erosion of its vote can't hurt the latter. But whichever way you cut it, Maharashtra is seeing new patterns in its political fabric. And the outcome of the polls cannot but have a national fallout. A win for the Sena-BJP would see a flagging, demoralised force revive. A loss would see its internal strains magnify. And its ideological confusion deepen.

A lot of it keeps coming back to Vidharbha, the BSP, and the way the Congress-NCP have ruled Maharashtra. The last of those factors is what damages the alliance across the State. The BSP is the force that, if not held at bay, can wreck their ship in Vidharbha. Sure, the Congress is lucky to face rivals unable to cash in fully on its failures in this election. But it's still one that could be lost by the Congress rather than won by the Sena-BJP. (Courtesy: The Hindu)