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When enemy’s friend is your friend: Congress-NCP take a leaf out of BJP-Left book

Rahul Gandhi has failed multiple times and there seems no hope of a Congress recovery soon. In such a crisis, you clutch at any straw, no matter how saffron.

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In politics, or war by any other means, the oldest principle is: The enemy’s enemy is your friend. And what do you do when you are so down in the dumps that you aren’t even in the fight? Then, conventional rules no longer suffice. Once you get desperate enough, you venture out to even reverse it: What if the enemy’s best friend then becomes your friend? If there is the minutest crack visible in their relationship, why not probe it with a finely-sharpened hatchet?

That is exactly the game the Congress and its ally Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are playing in Maharashtra. A deal isn’t sealed as this column is written, but the mere fact that they’ve announced willingness to share power with the Shiv Sena tells us what a change this is in Indian politics. The two, committed ‘secular’ allies for decades, are reaching out formally to a party they have condemned as Right-wing Hindutva and communal all this while. This is India’s premier secular combination crossing an ideological Lakshman rekha.

It is even more striking for the Congress. Sharad Pawar’s NCP is still a party known for its deft political footwork and back-room deal-cutting now and then. As I have written earlier, Pawar has been India’s best-networked politician for three decades now. And, in the true sense of old-fashioned Indian politics, never treats anybody as an enemy.

He has always fought with the BJP and Shiv Sena, both have routinely called him a “crook”, and the Modi government’s Enforcement Directorate also named him in some scam on the eve of this state election.

Do also note that the same Modi government had honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan, an award next only to Bharat Ratna. Pawar and the Thackerays too have had a business-like political relationship sometimes. 

The Congress, on the other hand, has never gone anywhere in that direction. Committed critics of the Congress would contest this, mentioning Congress’s deals with the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Christian), and sometimes with Asaduddin Owaisi’s MIM in Hyderabad. Those deals are still marginal, localised, and, more importantly, with small groups riding minority politics. This is the Congress’s first embrace of a genuine, fried-in-desighee Hindutva party since Independence.

Also read: Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress are walking into an Amit Shah trap in Maharashtra

If you understand the essential politics of the Congress, especially under Sonia Gandhi over the past two decades, it has looked at the Hindutva parties as its prime ideological rivals and designed its entire politics in opposition to them. In an interview with me on NDTV’s ‘Walk The Talk’ show in 2003, L.K. Advani had complained that Sonia Gandhi treated his party not just as a rival but an ‘enemy’. Once it defined its politics this way, the Congress was now willing to align with just about anyone to fight the BJP and its essential allies. We define two parties, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena, as its essential allies.

The Congress has aligned with the Left multiple times, beginning with outside support to H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral’s United Front governments merely to keep the “communal forces” out, and to also place the party back in power at the head of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), after the unlikely general election result in 2004.

In the coalition era, it has at some point or the other made deals with those who’ve also aligned with the BJP. These include Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar. But never with a Hindutva ally, or the Akalis. There had to be a ‘progressive forces’ cover always. Sonia’s Congress, if anything, leaned even more towards minorityism, first by agreeing to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, or POTA (never mind that similar draconian provisions were brought in through amendments to the UAPA), then by setting up the Sachar Committee to look into the socio-economic status of the Muslims.

You can, therefore, understand the kind of churning the party would have gone through before taking such a big ideological leap. You can also see the arguments it would have led to between the party’s more pragmatic old-school politicians and the younger, new, Left-ideological core that came up around Rahul Gandhi. You can also understand why the older people think differently now.

First, even if they do not dare to say it publicly, they acknowledge that Rahul has failed multiple times and there seems no hope of a recovery or comeback, at least in their remaining political careers. Second, they fear a real prospect of ending up in CBI or ED custody at some point soon. And third, because unlike the relatively newer generation, especially the latter-day radical imports from JNU etc, they know their political history.

They remember, for example, that when their party was dominant and their rivals in as deep a hole as they are in now, if not deeper (BJP had only two Lok Sabha MPs in 1984), they were flexible with ideologies. Until 1966, when Punjab was divided into three (Haryana and Himachal Pradesh being the two new states), the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (the parent of the BJP) was a sworn enemy of the Shiromani Akali Dal. In the 1967 elections, they were allies against the Congress.

Subsequently, as Indian politics became unipolar under Indira Gandhi’s Congress, not only did the Jana Sangh and its socialist critics come together repeatedly, it even made common cause with the ideology most distant from it: The Left. The three prominent occasions we saw it in our working lives was the BJP and the Left joining hands to keep V.P. Singh’s good-for-nothing government in power (1989-90), and then to try and defeat the Congress-led “secular” combine UPA governments twice, in 2008 and 2012, over the India-US nuclear deal and FDI in multi-brand retail, respectively.

If the BJP and the Left, on two extremes of the ideological spectrum, didn’t hesitate to align against a common enemy, why can’t the Congress now? Congress made Indian politics unipolar then, the BJP does so now, so why not the same flexibility? That is the question Congress pragmatists would have asked. Sometimes the excuse for the Left and the BJP was to keep corruption (Bofors), or generally, the dynasty out. Sometimes it was a common front to keep the American devil (nuclear deal) or rampaging MNCs (FDI in retail) at bay.

Why can’t the Congress now do something similar? Especially when the prize is to keep India’s second largest (48 MPs in the Lok Sabha) and most ‘resource’-rich state, Maharashtra, away from the Modi-Shah BJP? What does the Congress have to lose, down to 52 in the Lok Sabha and 44 in the Maharashtra assembly, the smallest of the four major parties? Does it matter even if it is short-lived and the BJP returns? It was going to the BJP anyway.

We can write another thousand words pointing out flaws in this larger argument, and its risks. This has fragile written all over it, unless Pawar can make this arrangement really last. But, when you are in such a hopeless state, you clutch at any straw. Never mind if it is coloured deep saffron.

Also read: Sena-Congress ‘friendship’ goes back 50 yrs — a story of helping each other grow in Mumbai


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  1. 1- Prabhodhankar Thackeray, the father of Balasaheb Thackeray, was a prominent leader of Samyukta Maharashrtra Samiti (SMS) that supported an unitary state for all Marathis. This demand and SMS as an organization was opposed by both Congress and RSS-BJS (the earlier name of BJP). So there is nothing natural in an alliance between SS and BJP as Shiv Sena (SS) roots lie in SMS.
    2- Despite being its oldest alliance partner of BJP and the second largest NDA constituent after BJP, SS got only 1 cabinet in a council of ministers with 35 cabinet ministers and 58 ministers in total. Was this justice? Moreover, the BJP did not refrain from poaching senior SS leaders like Suresh Prabhu. Is this how one treats allies?
    3- For most part of its alliance with BJP, SS was the major partner in state assembly elections. Hence, SS claims of an agreement on 50-50 partnership post assembly elections sounds plausible. In the LS elections, SS and BJP had a near 50-50 split despite BJP being the traditional major partner in lok sabha elections.
    4- In the current assembly elections, SS had the highest decline in percentage of votes among all 4 major parties in absolute and proportional (proportional to their vote share) terms. This suggests that many potential SS voters are not happy with the alliance.
    5- The decline in SS share of seats in assembly elections, as compared to lok sabha elections, suggests that BJP is ready to grovel when it feels threatened and ready to kick allies when it is convenient. BJP leaders reportedly encouraged BJP members to contest as independents in seats given to BJP, in order to bring down its final tally. Who would like to work with such a duplicitous ally? What is wrong in double-crossing them?

    Hence, SS walking away from the alliance is a rational and ethical move. Being unethical with unethical people for one’s survival is not wrong in my opinion. I hope they focus on language-based politics rather than nepotism, hooliganism and hate politics in future. If they do, they have a bright future.

    • Except BJP all are family centric parties. This is where they all will loose unless start kicking family hold off the party leadership.

  2. NCP does not have any ideology, expect power and money making. It offered to support BJP the last time around in Maharashtra. Shiv Sena knows that given BJP’s predominance it cannot have a realistic shot at the CM’s chair anytime in the near future. Hence for these two parties to come together is understandable. The real loser in this arrangement will be Congress. Try as it might, it will never be able to justify its tie up with Shiv Sena and still claim to be secular. In the long run, it is advantage BJP.

  3. Although this provides godsend lifelines to NCP & Maharashtra Congress, I don’t think Sharad Pawar will allow the government to run it full tenure. In the next elections seat sharing appears to be an impossible task. So better for them to dump Shiv Sena midway and put all the blame on the Sena for separation.

  4. I think this in any case real end of the congress and real begining of the new congress, which this should have happened just after independence. Mahatma Gandhi had recommended the same. Congress party didnt get this then. Now BJP has done this with precision in the name of congress mukt bharat. Now once these parties form the government formally the eclipse is complete. Now we all hope that all parties should go to election with a basic common minimum programme and minority/ weaker/poor protection as part of cmp. This way we can get in to performance based elections!

  5. Ethics gone for toss. Marriage of convenience. We have seen such arrangements in Karnataka recently going awry. A group from single party has many individuals. Two parties has more crowd. Three is absolute pandemonium. No place for ideologies.

  6. Ideological differences? Nonsense. It’s marketing stupid! To get votes you need to differentiate yourselves from other parties; a different colour, a different symbol (logo), a different tagline (Bharat Mata Ki), and so on. It’s all about positioning yourselves differently; ask anti corruption specialist Kejriwal.

    Power trumps all differences, and the money that comes with it takes care of all ideologies. Jai Hind!

  7. Mushqil nahin hai, even without Mr Pawar functioning as Minister Mentor to the arrangement. In the BMC, all political parties come together in well oiled synergy. The Shiv Sena is more pragmatism than ideology, difficult to recall the last time it called for a Bombay Bandh, the furthest it has gone to the city’s commercial rhythms. 2. This is the cost and consequence of pushing everyone to the wall. Not allowing any political space to competitors, not just nationally but even at state level. Inexorable pressures will of course be brought to bear to wreck the arrangement. Barring that, the government should run for five years, as Shri Sharad Pawar has promised.

      • “ Inexorable pressures will of course be brought to bear to wreck the arrangement. Barring that, the government should run for five years, as Shri Sharad Pawar has promised.” – he he shri ashok JI’s convenient ‘head I win, tails you lose.’

      • Yeah. The worst roads for any city in the world calling itself a financial centre. And for 35 years we have not seen any road rage disrupt the “commercial rhtym”. Despite all the moolah in the BMC rhtym regulator!

  8. If not today, it has to happen tomorrow. I would say it’s better for BJP that it has happened now. It’s a matter of time when Shiv Sena will completely transform as secular party and start echoing the sound bytes of anti Hindu secularists. However, Shiv Sena’s celebrations may not last long as Amit Shah is now free to play his brand of politics in Maharashtra. BJP leadership had failed to understand the post Balathakare’s Shiv Sena and could not preempt Udhav Thakare’s politics even though the writings on the SAMANA’s pages were there to be read by Modi and Amit Shah. The changed politics of Maharashtra presents the golden opportunity for BJP to become sole pro nationalist party. Whenever next opportunity opens, BJP will repeat its best electoral performance in Maharashtra. Shiv Sena is bound to become extinct along with Congress.

  9. There is per se nothing wrong with Congress, NCP and Sena coming together to form the post poll coalition government in Maharashtra if Congress has now come down to treat a so called rabid Hindutva as well as parochial party like Sena as its potential ally and a senior partner in the government. With this, there are no more any untouchables in Indian politics! (unless we wait to see Congress Akali joining up a few years later to keep BJP away from power in Punjab) and minority appeasement or pseudo secularism is now formally dead. We must thank Modi for this change. Like in any European country, we can have many small parties existing and coming together to form government based on a common minimum program. In this sense, ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ may have failed in its promise! Also, even if there is a pre-poll alliance, the alliance partner may not stick together after the election results and can join with any other combination to form the government. Hence, there is no need for a pre poll alliance as potential allies can join together later. However, it is important that such coalition government runs corruption free and lasts its full term otherwise disillusioned voters will back a stronger party next time around.

    While these are the possibilities, we are yet to cross the point where sharing of CMship is agreed among the three parties. It is likely that if Congress asks for 1 year of CMship followed by 2 years each for NCP and Sena, then the government formation may be in trouble. Further, as government is formed, if the level of corruption is unacceptable, then all the three parties will suffer a big loss of face. Anyway, Modi hai to mumkin hai!

    • Today Congress’s condition is similar to a fast dipping stock that momentarily rises up and then deep dips in steps. Congress Mukta Bharat is imminent to happen and Shiv Sena will only fasten this process.

  10. I find the reasoning typically politically convoluted for a convenient arrangement . The right thing to do for the Coangress would be to forget about win and lose and think of its core ideology , take a principled stand and sit in the opposition . Whenever the elections are held again , fight lile IKE’s dog and if they win , a honorable win it would be and if they loose , claim with pride that they lost on principles .

    • NCP does not have any ideology, expect power and money making. It offered to support BJP the last time around in Maharashtra. Shiv Sena knows that given BJP’s predominance it cannot have a realistic shot at the CM’s chair anytime in the near future. Hence for these two parties to come together is understandable. The real loser in this arrangement will be Congress. Try as it might, it will never be able to justify its tie up with Shiv Sena and still claim to be secular. In the long run, it is advantage BJP.

    • And also recommend a Bharat Ratna for Smt Sonia Gandhi for converting Shiv Sena into a selective secular party like the Congress. It is surely her turn now to get the award, that every Nehru and no Gandhi, routinely gets.

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