Pankaja Munde - who lit the funeral pyre of her father and central minister Gopinath Munde on Wednesday at his ancestral village of Parli in Maharasthra along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party general secretary Amit Shah - will lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s campaign for the Assembly elections scheduled for later this year.
The BJP would like to see Pankaja, a 34-year-old MLA from Parli, to emerge as the heir to her father's political legacy. The tragic demise of her father could evoke enough sympathy among the electorate for Pankaja and is likely to help the BJP build on its excellent performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in the state.
The party's assessment is that in the Assembly elections, Pankaja, a backward caste leader, with help from extensive campaigning by Modi, who also identifies himself as an OBC, would negate the perception that the BJP without Munde is an upper caste party.
Such a campaign reinforce the upper caste urban party image of its ally, the Shiv Sena. BJP sources say such a strategy could embolden the party not to play a second fiddle to the Sena.
There are indications the BJP-Shiv Sena mahayuti or grand alliance, along with three smaller parties in the state, is likely to come under immense stress.
With Munde gone, Nitin Gadkari is likely to lead the seat adjustment talks with the Sena. Gadkari's presence is sure to make Sena suspicious, given that the BJP leader had upset Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray by talking to the latter's estranged cousin, Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. Gadkari and Raj had ostensibly spoken about a possible electoral tie-up.
The presence of Amit Shah in Maharasthra is another positive for the BJP. Shah has been made in-charge of party's election campaign for the Assembly elections. He is likely to replicate some of the strategies he employed in Uttar Pradesh to get Dalit and other backward classes (OBC) votes for the BJP.
This would include being more accommodating towards the Republican Party of India (Athavale), a party with a substantial support base among Dalits, and Raju Shetty's Swabhimani Paksha, with its supporters among the peasantry. The two parties were a part of the mahayuti that fought the Lok Sabha elections. The Sena, however, might not find it as easy to sacrifice seats for either of these two parties.
The strains between the Sena and the BJP were evident on Monday, just 24 hours before Munde died. Sena spokesman Sanjay Raut had projected party chief Uddhav as the next chief minister. But BJP state unit President Devendra Fadnavis said Munde had been loaned to Delhi for three months and would return to be the chief minister.
The understanding in the party is Munde's passing away was unlikely to change BJP's plans to be more assertive with the Sena over seat adjustment. The BJP is likely to insist that it contest a majority of seats, given its increased influence in rural areas across most of Maharashtra. Until now, the BJP-Shiv Sena arrangement was such that the national party fought a majority of Maharashtra's 48 Lok Sabha seats, while the Sena fought most of the Assembly seats.
The BJP believes while its support base has been expanding, the Sena's has reached a plateau.
Munde, who was the frontrunner for BJP's chief ministerial candidate, had already discussed the Assembly poll strategy last week.
He had clearly indicated that BJP's alliance with Shiv Sena, Republican Party of India, Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana and Rashtriya Samaj Party will further be strengthened without compromising on party's interests. Further, Munde had also indicated that he would bargain with the Sena to change the 172:117 seat-sharing formula.
A BJP general secretary, who did not want to be identified, told Business Standard: "A large section of the party wants that party should go alone, while a few are of the view that it should press for 155:133 or 165:123 formula."
In 2009 elections, the BJP received 18.17 per cent of the votes and won nine seats. The Sena got 17 per cent votes and was victorious on 11 seats. In 2014, the BJP increased its vote share to 27.3 per cent and won all 23 seats it had contested. The Sena also won all 18 seats it contested but its vote share increased by a bit over three per cent to 20.6 per cent. The BJP is convinced that this increase was because of the "Modi wave".
Munde, who hailed from the backward Vanjara community, played a key role in breaking the stranglehold of the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party in the Marathwada region. Modi, in his tweet after Munde's death, said: "Hailing from backward section of society, he rose to great heights and tirelessly served people."
Maharashtra Assembly's term ends on December 7.