In the ongoing tussle within the Opposition – with the Congress on the one hand and a variety of non-Congress parties, most prominent among them the Trinamool Congress, on the other – one party has surprised many: the Shiv Sena.
On a number of occasions in the recent past, the Shiv Sena has publicly expressed its support for the Congress, be it through statements by MP Sanjay Raut or editorials in the Shive Sena mouthpiece Saamna.
Significantly, senior Shiv Sena minister Eknath Shinde and his son MP Shrikant Shinde issued a full page ad in Congress mouthpiece National Herald on Congress President Sonia Gandhi's birthday last week, hailing her as an "extraordinary personality."
To many, this seems counter-intuitive given the ideological differences between the two parties and also the decent equation the Sena shares with three of the major protagonists of the non-Congress Opposition space: Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar and Prashant Kishor.
At a time when the TMC and Congress were trading barbs, Shiv Sena made a number of statements asserting that no Opposition is possible without the Congress.
Sena's Sanjay Raut even said that "a misconception is being created that the Opposition is unwilling to unite under Rahul Gandhi."
However, in another interview, Raut also said that he wants Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar to take the lead.
So what explains the Sena's position?
There are three aspects to this.
1. Support for a Strong Centre
Shiv Sena is a regional party and has raised the issue of federalism, especially when it comes to Maharashtra's interests. But unlike many other regional parties, from the time of Balasaheb Thackeray, the Sena has always stood for a strong Centre.
The Sena used to support the Congress, sometimes tacitly sometimes openly till the 1970s and shifted to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the mid-1980s.
The Sena has a certain understanding of national politics which has involved supporting national parties. The idea of a conglomeration of regional parties coming together doesn't instinctively appeal to the Sena.
2. Need for Options
There is a strong sense in the Sena that due to its pro-Hindutva image, the BJP took it for granted for all these years with the belief that the party would have no other option but to stay within a saffron alliance.
The Sena challenged this after the 2019 Assembly elections by joining hands with the NCP and the Congress, an arrangement that landed Uddhav Thackeray in the CM's position.
While Thackeray has grown into the job and carved out a certain image for himself, the Sena also realised that in the alliance, it was the NCP that held all the cards.
"The NCP can join hands with any of the three major parties in Maharashtra. None of the other three parties have that luxury. I don't mean this in a disparaging manner, it is to NCP's credit that it has pitched itself in this manner," a senior Shiv Sena leader told The Quint.
It is this sense of "lacking options" that has made Sena try to cultivate an independent relationship with the Congress, one that isn't mediated by the NCP.
The Sena wants to have its own leverage, rather than add to the NCP's leverage, which was the situation during the power sharing talks between the three parties in 2019.
3. Different Diagnosis on the Congress' Woes
The Sena has a different diagnosis on what ails the Congress. While the TMC seems to have indicated that the problem in the Grand Old Party lies with Rahul Gandhi's leadership, the Sena has a different take.
The Sena seems to believe that the problem in the Congress doesn't lie with Rahul Gandhi but with "leaders trying to sabotage him." Sanjay Raut said this in as many words during a recent interview.
"If Rahul Gandhi takes the lead, I hope all parties will support him. But there are leaders in Congress who don’t want the good of the party. Internal opposition is a bigger enemy for the Congress party than BJP," Raut told The New Indian Express.
In informal conversations, Sena leaders say that the problem with the Congress is "weak chain of command."
For the past few months, the Sena has been trying to cultivate both Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi and the party may not mind if the brother-sister duo consolidates power within the party.
What Lies Ahead
Shiv Sena is a unique party in the larger anti-BJP space because it still identifies itself as a Hindutva party. But it broke ties with the BJP as it found that the party was trying to squeeze it in Maharashtra.
Sena seems to have complete clarity that the BJP's national dominance and constant hunger for expansion is a threat to its interests. Its priority, therefore, lies in the weakening of the BJP. This, in Sena's view, cannot happen without the help of a party with a national reach like the Congress.
This doesn't mean that the alliance between the two parties won't have its share of pinpricks.
The Mumbai Congress has recently decided to move court against the Sena-led Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's decision to deny permission to a Rahul Gandhi rally.
The Congress too is trying to revive its fortunes in Maharashtra independent of the alliance.
It also doesn't mean that Sena will be completely averse to an Opposition formation led by a regional leader or even a BJP formation led by someone more accommodative than the present dispensation.
But the point is that the party wants to keep its options open and doesn't want ideological differences to come in the way of its equation with the Congress.