Some eyebrows may have gone up when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was photographed with his hand on the back of Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut after his breakfast meeting with opposition leaders on Tuesday, signifying an easy camaraderie between the two parties.
Later, Raut claimed that the Gandhi scion had shown keen interest in knowing about the growth and functioning of the Sena.
Living up to Bismarck’s adage about politics being the art of the possible, the Shiv Sena ditched its Hindutva fellow-traveler Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to join hands with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to form a government in Maharashtra under Sena president Uddhav Thackeray in November 2019.
Though the Congress is part of the coalition, its leaders admit that Rahul Gandhi was not too keen on an alliance with the Shiv Sena.
Sena & Congress: 'A Bitter Pill'
This was obvious considering its record in communal conflagrations and the impact on the minority voter, who forms part of the core voter of India’s Grand Old Party, and the intemperate attacks on the Gandhi family by the Sena leadership.
The decision, described as a bitter pill, was taken due to the expediency involved in keeping the BJP out of power in Maharashtra, and also to prevent any defections from the Congress legislature wing.
On the other hand, the Shiv Sena and the NCP had a history.
The late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and NCP chief Sharad Pawar were friends and the two parties had also unsuccessfully tried to hammer out an alliance for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
The Shiv Sena’s alliance with the Congress signified that the wheel has come full circle for both parties. For, the Shiv Sena has deep associations with the Congress since its launch in 1966, though the two fell out in the watershed decade of the 1980s.
In October 1966, when the Shiv Sena held its first public meeting at Shivaji Park, one of those on stage, apart from Sena chief Bal Thackeray, his father and social reformer ‘Prabodhankar’ Keshav Sitaram Thackeray, and Balwant Mantri, was Congress leader Ramrao Adik, who later became the state’s deputy chief minister.
The Birth of Sena & Its History With Congress
The Shiv Sena was born out of a sense of existential angst among the Marathi speakers in Mumbai. The Marathi manoos, who was not in a majority, but the largest minority in the state’s capital, had to contend with intense economic competition from non-Maharashtrians.
The Shiv Sena tapped into this insecurity and its emergence and growth mirrored nativist movements in regions like Assam, Telangana and Karnataka, which were hostile to 'outsiders' and felt that the sons-of-the-soil were getting a raw deal.
The Shiv Sena is accused of using its muscle to break the hold of the Communists on the working-class movements in Mumbai at the behest of the ruling Congress. This famously earned it the moniker of ‘Vasant Sena’ or the army of Vasantrao Naik, the then chief minister of Maharashtra.
In the Lok Sabha elections held in 1967, it successfully supported former civil servant S.G. Barve, a nominee of then Mumbai Congress strongman SK Patil against former defence minister VK Krishna Menon.
While flirting with political forces ranging from the Socialists, Republican Party of India and even the Muslim League, the Shiv Sena strategically chose its sides while allying with the Congress and its factions in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), where its political interests lay.
In 1975, late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray supported Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to declare an internal Emergency.
In 1977, Dr Hemchandra Gupte, who was once the personal physician of the Thackeray family, and the Shiv Sena’s first mayor in Mumbai, quit the party after the Sena supremo supported Murli Deora of the Congress against the opposition’s Sohan Singh Kohli.
Thackeray kept up his association with the Congress, and even canvassed for his friend and chief minister Abdul Rehman Antulay in Raigad’s Shrivardhan constituency (1980). In return, the Shiv Sena was given three legislative council berths.
A Fracturing of Ties
However, the Shiv Sena-Congress honeymoon hit a rough patch in the mid-1980s after issues like a deadlock over the strike called by the predominant Maharashtrian textile mill workers in Mumbai.
This coincided with the Sena’s bid to expand outside its traditional zone of influence in the Mumbai-Thane region. Thackeray donned the saffron robes of a ‘Hinduhriday Samrat’ and emerged as a Hindutva demagogue.
It was obvious that the Shiv Sena, which had allied with the BJP after an electorally unsuccessful attempt in 1984, would have to cross-swords with the Congress, which despite being the ruling party, was now on a gradual decline.
In his public meetings, Thackeray Senior would often take low blows at the Gandhi’s in his inimitable style and also mimic Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
A Party Without Ideological Bearings
The Shiv Sena is a party that shed and take a new skin easily. Its over five-decade old journey makes it clear that the party lacks a strong sense of ideology, and chooses political expediency over any dogma.
Indeed, even the party’s commitment to Hindutva vis-à-vis that of the Sangh Parivar has been questioned.
Sena watchers say that while Hindutva or more specifically, a certain attitude towards religious minorities is second skin for the Sangh cadre, while for the Shiv Sena, it may be a shawl, that can be worn or discarded at will!
It is perhaps this lack of strong moorings and convictions that have worked to the Shiv Sena’s benefit and helped it ally with the Congress and the NCP while managing the inherent contradictions.
The Gandhi-Raut camaraderie have come at an opportune time. On the same day, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who is seen as the architect of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in Maharashtra, met union home minister Amit Shah ostensibly to discuss issues faced by the sugar co-operatives.
MVA & The Skepticism Around NCP
Despite his long career in politics, Pawar is known for changing his positions frequently, leading to trust issues and questions over the longevity of the current regime. Even today, many questions about his nephew and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar’s short-lived dalliance with the BJP continue to linger.
Though the MVA government is seen as an NCP government—the party controls crucial portfolios like home, finance, rural development, water resources and public health—the Shiv Sena has more at stake as Uddhav is the first Thackeray to make a transition into electoral politics.
Even Shiv Sena leaders admit that whether the MVA government completes five years in office depends on the NCP’s position.
In Maharashtra, Congress leaders have a bone to pick with the NCP gradually encroaching on their social and political base.
On the other hand, the Shiv Sena and the NCP are at odds in large swathes of the state like Marathwada and parts of western Maharashtra and the Konkan.
Hence, will the gradually warming of ties between the Shiv Sena and the Congress be the precursor for any gradual internal realignments and power shifts within the MVA? Only time will tell...
(The author is a journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the shadow of their Senas’ and 'The Bawla Murder Case: Love, Lust and Crime in Colonial India')