Mumbai: As the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra approaches its two-year anniversary next month, the top leadership of the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) appear to have drawn closer, but on the ground, the animosity between cadres and second-rung leaders of the two parties remain.
Over the last two years, there have been at least eight instances where leaders from the NCP and Shiv Sena have publicly clashed over local issues or acrimonious statements made by one party against the other.
NCP leaders have irked Shiv Sena leaders with statements such as Sena president Uddhav Thackeray becoming CM “only because of NCP president Sharad Pawar’s blessings”, and levelled allegations of tearing down NCP posters and clipping the party’s wings.
Shiv Sena leaders, too, have snubbed the NCP by calling Pawar a “backstabber” and even taking an NCP minister, Chhagan Bhujbal, to court.
The latest flashpoint was in Thane Monday, when the two parties were locked in a ‘credit war’ for vaccination drives held by the Sena-led Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) in the last few days.
The NCP alleged the Shiv Sena was claiming all the credit for the event by putting its posters and merchandise at a vaccination venue in Kalwa and that Sena corporators were removing their party banners which also appealed to people to attend the drive.
“You can see Shiv Sena corporators tearing down our banners at 3 am in the CCTV footage. Shiv Sena leaders further said, though the drive was by TMC, the cost of arranging it was borne by the Sena, and NCP doesn’t have the resources to do something like this. The very next day, we went to the Thane mayor with a cheque of Rs 20 lakh saying we want to arrange two such drives, one in Sena MLA Eknath Shinde’s constituency but he got angry and it led to another verbal spat,” an NCP leader from Thane who did not wish to be named told ThePrint.
The leader said although the two parties were in power together at the state level, in Thane they were the “principal opposition” to the Shiv Sena “so these issues are bound to happen”.
“As a party we can’t agree to everything that the Shiv Sena does. We have been rivals for so long, there can’t be bonding between us all of a sudden,” the leader added.
Thane Mayor, Naresh Mhaske of the Shiv Sena, however, told ThePrint that the Shiv Sena had helped the TMC organise the vaccination camp and made efforts to bring people to the venue.
“The camp was in an area where we have our party’s corporators, so I see no issue if they put up the party’s posters at the pandal. The NCP shouldn’t have unnecessarily put their posters up. We deliberately stayed away from areas where the NCP has corporators when we organised various vaccination camps because we didn’t want to encroach on their turf.”
Mhaske added that in an alliance government the sensitivities of alliance partners must be respected. “When there’s an alliance government in the state, how can they (the NCP) keep opposing us like this by hurling allegations against us in front of the media? Even when the NCP’s posters were torn, I personally called NCP Thane President Anand Paranjape to resolve the matter. But if the party continues to badmouth Shiv Sena publicly even we can’t keep quiet.”
Continuing history of Shiv Sena-NCP clashes
Signs of friction between the Shiv Sena and NCP cadre emerged within just four months of the formation of the MVA government.
In March 2020, former Shirur MP Shivaji Adhalrao Patil, a Sena leader, alleged that Deputy CM Ajit Pawar and the NCP were being “unjust” to the Shiv Sena and “trampling” upon the party. He said the NCP was trying to “come in the way” of the Shiv Sena’s work in the region since the Sena doesn’t have a single senior leader from the Pune region in the state assembly.
The Shirur Lok Sabha constituency has been a constant source of animosity between the Sena and NCP. The constituency was created in 2008 and has been held by the Shiv Sena since its first election in 2009. Earlier, most of the constituency fell under the Khed Lok Sabha seat, which, too, the Sena held.
In 2019, the NCP ended the Sena’s reign after a bitter battle between Sena incumbent Patil and NCP’s Amol Kolhe, an actor who had played the role of Sambhaji, Chhatrapati Shivaji’s son, on television.
In June 2021, the Shiv Sena and the NCP clashed in the Khed taluka of the Shirur constituency when five Sena members joined the NCP for a no-confidence motion against Khed Panchayat Samiti Chairman, Shiv Sena’s Bhagwan Pokharkar.
Shiv Sena held Khed MLA Dilip Mohite Patil responsible for the episode, and Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut has had many a war of words with MLA Patil since then. Speaking to ThePrint, the two leaders, however, downplayed the differences.
“In any alliance, at the local level there are bound to be some issues because the karyakartas (workers) have their own political aspirations. This used to happen between the Shiv Sena and the BJP, as well as between the Congress and NCP. But, these issues get resolved from time to time,” Raut told ThePrint.
NCP’s Mohite Patil, meanwhile, said the karyakartas are not always strong on ideology and often oppose for the sake of opposition.
“They have been used to considering a karyakarta of another party as a foe for so long that they can’t adjust and suddenly call that person a friend now,” he said.
“But, if you look at what the BJP is doing in the country now, it needs to be defeated. The Shiv Sena was an honest ally of the BJP for 25-30 years, but in the last five years of that alliance, the BJP treated the Shiv Sena very badly. Our principle is that the enemy of our enemy is our friend.”
A month later, in July, former and sitting MPs, Shivaji Adhalrao Patil and Kolhe, clashed over a local bypass that both had separately inaugurated in a span of two days. During the inauguration under Kolhe, the NCP MP riled local Sena leaders by saying the party “should not forget” that Sena president Uddhav Thackeray became Maharashtra’s CM only because of NCP president Sharad Pawar’s blessings.
The Shiv Sena lashed back, with party leader Kishore Kanhere issuing a statement saying the NCP, too, shouldn’t forget with whose help it could come to power, and warned that the latter shouldn’t let the grapes of power turn sour.
Kolhe did not respond to ThePrint’s calls.
In August 2021, when former Shiv Sena MP Patil called Sena MoS Abdul Sattar to inaugurate a new party administrative unit in Pargaon village as well as a gram panchayat office there, protocol demanded that the sitting MLA of the area, NCP’s Atul Benke, would be present to receive the MoS. However, when it was clear that Benke was late to the event, an angry Sattar walked off the dais and left the venue amid sloganeering by Sena workers, local Shiv Sena leaders told ThePrint.
Neither Patil, Sattar, nor Benke responded to ThePrint’s calls for a comment.
In September, Shiv Sena MLA Suhas Kande approached the Bombay High Court seeking the removal of NCP’s Chhagan Bhujbal as guardian minister for the district, saying the minister allotted more funds from the District Planning Development Council to constituencies with NCP legislators, and his constituency, Nandgaon, was shortchanged.
Addressing a press conference, Kande gave his perspective: “The argument is over a person (Bhujbal) who has put Balasaheb behind bars. The argument is not about MVA. I am requesting you to understand this.”
The same month, in Konkan’s Raigad district, Shiv Sena’s Anant Geete, a former Union minister, said Sharad Pawar “backstabbed” the Congress and such a person can’t be the Shiv Sena’s “guru.” An irate Sunil Tatkare, a senior NCP leader from Raigad, hit back saying the statement seems to have “come out of frustration” and that Geete was missing in action for two years after he lost the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Geete told ThePrint he did not want to comment, while Tatkare did not respond to ThePrint’s calls.
Sena vs NCP vs Congress: Partners, friends and former foes
The MVA comprises the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress. The NCP and Congress have been traditional allies, while the Shiv Sena had until the formation of the MVA been their ideological enemy, being a party from the saffron fold and in an alliance with the BJP.
Pawar and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray were the thickest of friends, but the bitterest of political foes. However, the Shiv Sena and NCP came together after the 2019 Maharashtra assembly election to form a government when the results threw up a hung assembly and the Sena ended its alliance with the BJP for allegedly not honouring its assurance of sharing all posts and portfolios, including the CM’s post, equally.
Eventually, the Congress too came on board to form the MVA government with the other two parties, but its leaders increasingly felt as if they were the third wheel as Thackeray and Pawar drew closer.
There have been instances of power tussles between the Shiv Sena and NCP over issues such as the NCP-led home department unilaterally transferring certain Deputy Commissioners of Police (DCPs) in Mumbai without the CM’s explicit approval, and the NCP having inducted five Shiv Sena councillors in Ajit Pawar’s presence last year. However, a series of meetings between CM Thackeray, Sharad Pawar and Ajit Pawar resolved these issues with the DCPs transfers being reversed and the five councillors sent back to the Sena fold.
Meanwhile, Pawar has always had Thackeray’s ear. The two leaders often have closed-door meetings to discuss governance and political issues, and Pawar has Thackeray’s back each time the CM came under the opposition’s fire.
In July 2020, Pawar became the only prominent non-Thackeray leader to be interviewed by Saamana, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece. In the three-part interview, Pawar had revealed that the NCP’s offer of outside support to the BJP to form the government in Maharashtra in 2014 was a “calculated move” to distance the Shiv Sena from the BJP for the Sena’s benefit.
In June 2021, speaking at NCP’s foundation day, Pawar told his cadre to trust the Shiv Sena as “history shows the party can be trusted”.
The Shiv Sena has also cozied up to the NCP and Pawar, on whose word the MVA hinges, by often making suggestions that the NCP leader should be in charge of an opposition alliance at the national level.
However, the newfound professional camaraderie between the Shiv Sena and NCP’s leadership hasn’t necessarily trickled down among its cadre on the ground.
(Edited by Paramita Ghosh)