Mumbai: In November last year, as the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress were in talks to form the Maharashtra government amid much political uncertainty after the 2019 assembly elections, there were many voices within the latter party that were against the idea.
As the three-party coalition, which came to be known as the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), nears its one-year anniversary this week (28 November), the Congress has emerged as the party that is squirming the most — seemingly uncomfortable in an alliance that its senior leadership was not in favour of to begin with, and where it sees itself as the third wheel.
However, for now, leaders of the beleaguered party say they want to overlook differences. Being part of the MVA not only helps the party keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power, but also strengthen its base in Maharashtra, they add.
“A number of minor issues can be solved through discussion and we have been doing that. One thing is certain, this government is not going anywhere. It is not going to fall or break,” Congress’ Vijay Wadettiwar, a minister in the Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray-led state cabinet, told ThePrint,
‘Ministers not heard, issues with funds’
Right since the early months of the coalition, Congress ministers have grumbled about not having enough say in the Thackeray-led government, where the party is the junior-most partner, and alleged that the CM is inaccessible.
In the MVA, the Shiv Sena has 56 seats, the NCP has 54, and the Congress has 44.
In June, several Congress ministers, including state party president Balasaheb Thorat, Ashok Chavan, Varsha Gaikwad, Nitin Raut and assembly Speaker Nana Patole, had a meeting about “being sidelined” in the MVA government, and decided to take up the issue with CM Thackeray.
As rumblings within the Congress grew louder, the Shiv Sena carried a scathing editorial in its mouthpiece Saamana, slamming the party as an “old creaking cot”. Thorat later met Thackeray to put forth the Congress’ issues within the government, and said the party was not sulking, but just wanted equal say.
Then, in August, Congress MLA Kailash Gorantyal threatened to go on a hunger strike with 11 other legislators if their demands for increased constituency development funds were not met, saying several Congress-led constituencies were getting second-rate treatment.
The Shiv Sena, in Saamana, had called this an internal matter of the Congress and passed the buck on to Deputy CM and state Finance Minister Ajit Pawar, though the issue came under the purview of the urban development department, which Shiv Sena minister Eknath Shinde heads.
Thorat had then backed the protesting MLAs, saying there should be parity in development funds for all legislators.
The Gorantyal controversy subsided after he dropped his plans for a hunger strike following an assurance from Deputy CM Pawar. But the issue of alleged partisan distribution of funds came to the fore once again when Congress minister Nitin Raut, who holds the energy portfolio, had to go back on a popular decision citing lack of funds.
The state energy department had cleared a proposal to give relief to consumers who received high electricity bills during the lockdown months, when power distribution companies could not personally take meter readings.
Last week, Raut said the government will not be able to provide any such relaxation. While the minister blamed the central government for not extending help, he also told reporters, “We sent the proposal to the finance department eight times, but they did not clear it.”
Other Congress ministers such as K.C. Padvi, who holds the tribal development portfolio, and Varsha Gaikwad, who oversees school education, have also complained about lack of adequate funds to their departments, while former CM Ashok Chavan has spoken out about Congress-controlled local bodies not getting sufficient finances.
Senior Congress leaders, however, play down the differences.
“These are issues that can be internally solved. But, at the end of the day, there haven’t been any sticking points where the Congress has differed from its other two alliance partners on major policy decisions,” said Manikrao Thakre, former state Congress chief.
“All we expect is that everything should happen in line with the Indian Constitution, and the Shiv Sena has accepted that,” he added.
Another senior leader who is not part of the state cabinet and who did not wish to be named said, “The alliance is beneficial for the Congress, too, as it helps us strengthen our base by being in the government and taking decisions in the interest of our voters. This kind of small issues are there, but our ministers should ensure that they remain within the cabinet and don’t spill outside.”
In the one year of the MVA government, the NCP and the Shiv Sena have gotten closer, with NCP chief Sharad Pawar being the main hinge of the otherwise shaky alliance, and having CM Thackeray’s ear.
“Sharad Pawar is a very experienced politician and the state government should avail of his experience. But, Sharad Pawar and the CM meet and discuss issues. The Congress is not always consulted,” said a second senior Congress leader who didn’t want to be named.
Moreover, with the finance department being with NCP’s Ajit Pawar, the Congress’ complaints of unequal distribution of development funds have also drawn a wedge between old allies Congress and NCP.
There have been instances where Congress leaders have openly complained about feeling like the third wheel to a Shiv Sena-NCP alliance.
In July, Maharashtra Youth Congress President Satyajeet Tambe publicly objected to a full-page advertisement released by the MVA government for a jobs portal. The advertisement only had pictures of Shiv Sena and NCP leaders, leaving out the Congress. Shiv Sena minister Subhash Desai had subsequently called up Balasaheb Thorat to explain that it wasn’t on purpose and assured him that it won’t happen again.
A month later, in August, the Congress’ Thane unit chief Vikrant Chavan put up posters taking a dig at the Thackeray-led government for allegedly ignoring the Congress.
The posters said the Thackeray government wouldn’t have been able to come to power had Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi not extended support.
“Sarkar tighancha mag nav ka fakta doghancha (If the government is of three parties, why are only two parties named)?” the posters said.
A Congress leader part of Thackeray’s council of ministers, however, said the differences posed no threat to the government, “The Shiv Sena also had issues with the BJP when the two parties were in power together. All that the Shiv Sena did was criticise the government. But, did the government fall? No.”
“This government will also last its full term,” the leader added.