“The question to be debated is not that ‘who will lead the UPA’. The question to be asked is ‘how the UPA will become stronger'. If the Congress can take the lead to do so, they are welcome,” said the Saamana ‘Agralekh’, the editorial in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece that is considered the party’s stand on any and every issue.
The editorial published on 29 December about the Congress – Sena’s ally in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra – had several positive and negative opinions about the party and how it needs to solve it’s own issues before being able to lead the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
This isn’t the first time the Sena has publicly jibed the Congress. In previous editorials, adjectives such as ‘weak’ and ‘creaking cots’ have been used by the mouthpiece while referring to the party – comments that haven’t gone down well with the state leadership. Sena has also openly batted for NCP supremo Sharad Pawar for leading the UPA instead of the Congress, to which former CM Ashok Chavan and current minister in Thackeray’s cabinet has said that the Sena isn’t a part of the UPA yet.
Sena’s criticisms have generated equally strong reactions from the Congress, who went on to say that staying in power in Maharashtra is not its ‘priority’, a clear reminder and a warning of sorts to ‘Matoshree’.
But how does this poking help each other? Doesn’t it make the alliance look weak? Doesn’t it provide more fuel to the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP to attack the MVA? The questions are many, but the jibes are politically more helpful than one would think.
Fanning the Fire Amid Frictions
The Congress has, more than once, expressed its displeasure about the treatment it has received in the MVA government.
Mumbai Congress General Secretary Vishwabandhu Rai has recently written to Congress interim President Sonia Gandhi, alleging that the party is being sidelined in the state in a carefully crafted strategy by the Shiv Sena and the NCP, and that the party is being weakened by its allies and the BJP like ‘termites’.
“Our allies are hurting our party by making thoughtful strategy and are engaged in advancing their own party. We are failing to stop this,” Rai wrote.
A few weeks ago, Sonia Gandhi herself had written to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, reminding him of his commitment towards Dalits and Adivasis in the Common Minimum Programme.
Sena’s chief spokesperson Sanjay Raut had downplayed the development, saying that any discussion for the good of Maharashtra should only be welcomed and not perceived as ‘pressure politics’.
While everything seems hunky-dory on the surface, the latest bone of contention between the three parties is the 2022 BMC elections. One would expect the MVA to put up a united front in the fight for Asia’s richest civic body, but all in the alliance don’t think so, especially several leaders of the Shiv Sena and the Congress.
Recently appointed Mumbai Congress President Bhai Jagtap had said the Congress should go solo in the BMC elections.
The Congress, the NCP and the Shiv Sena have always contested the BMC polls solo.
The Sena has been sweeping the civic body polls for almost three decades single-handedly, no matter who ruled the state. However, the BJP has managed to make a severe dent in Sena’s hold on the BMC in the previous elections, where it had emerged to be the second-largest party after Sena by just one seat.
Fighting in a Sena-led alliance might be beneficial for the NCP to strengthen its ground in Mumbai’s civic body and help the Sena against the BJP’s influx. But considering Congress’ weak stance in the state, Jagtap’s opinion surely comes across as questionable.
Poking Helps Tame the Core Voter
The foundation of the Shiv Sena was laid on the anti-Congress and pro-Hindutva ideology that stands true for its core voter base, even decades later. Naturally, the idea of a Sena-Congress alliance being forged, and moreover, lasting for a year in the government had many ridicule the thought.
The day the alliance was sealed, one of the prominent BJP leaders said on national TV that “the nation saw the son of Bal Thackeray take an oath in the name of Sonia Gandhi today.” The statement resonated with many and upset a large chunk of Sena’s core voter base.
On the other hand, Congress’ core voter base, which had already decimated in the state, saw the party as somebody reduced to a helpless position, who would even defy its own ideology to join hands with the Sena and play the third wheel.
The poking keeps the upset core voter base satiated and sends a message to the stanch supporters that the alliance is the need of the hour but the ideology hasn’t been compromised upon.
“So, we need to make anti-Congress statements every once in a while to show that we still have our individual ideology. We can’t risk our core voters leaving us for the BJP. Similarly, the Congress, too, needs to publicly take a dig at us every once in a while,” a Sena Sena functionary was quoted by The Print as saying.
Does the Congress Have a Choice?
Barring the PWD Ministry with former CM Ashok Chavan and the Revenue Ministry with Balasaheb Thorat, all other key portfolios are with the Sena and the NCP, which has made it difficult for the Congress leaders in the government to benefit from their core voters and supporters on ground. Many within the Congress feel the alliance has not largely benefitted the party.
Several Congress councillors from Mumbai’s Bhiwandi area even joined the NCP, a few weeks ago.
Sources told The Quint that the Shiv Sena and the NCP are planning to contest all upcoming local body and civic body polls in the alliance. Maharashtra Deputy CM and NCP leader Ajit Pawar recently appealed to the party leaders and workers to maintain good relations with the Sena counterparts to stay in power.
Several such incidents, sources say, are making the Congress feel sidelined.
Congress’ ally for 15 years in the state, the NCP has now clearly warmed-up to the Shiv Sena. On the other hand, the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) is seen warming-up to the BJP.
The Congress in Maharashtra has hardly anybody left to turn to. If it walks out of the alliance now, the Congress will only be seen as a party who brought down a popular government, upset the NCP and the Shiv Sena and become a laughing stock for the BJP.
Considering its rapidly decimating base in the state, playing the third wheel in the alliance is it’s only option to stay relevant and hold on to its core voters.
However, the Congress has planed to tackle the cons of being the junior partner in the alliance, the same way the Sena has tackled them with the BJP – bickering to be heard.
However, the end result of that strategy wasn’t something either the Sena or the BJP had anticipated, despite being parties of a shared ideology. That makes one think how the strategy will work with the Sena.
The Shiv Sena is aware that it needs the Congress, once its arch rival in the state and the Centre, to stay in power. But it is also fully aware that the Congress is the weakest link and that the voters know so.
An alliance that was unimaginable just a year ago has managed to tackle the BJP, which is stronger than ever in the state, has dealt with a pandemic that affected the highest number of people in the country, and overcame its own differences and managed to stay afloat. Many would call it nothing less than a political miracle.