Mumbai: Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray hosted his Telangana counterpart K. Chandrashekar Rao over lunch Sunday.
What transpired at the 1.5-hour meeting was a discussion on the “polluted political environment in the country, vengeful politics, and the need for states to unite” against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the country’s benefit.
In their joint address to the media later, the two CMs called their meeting “the first step” in creating an anti-BJP front, with Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leader Rao saying that any movement that starts in Maharashtra becomes very big later.
Sunday’s meeting between the two chief ministers took place after Thackeray called Rao last week extending an invitation to Mumbai.
While in the larger scheme of things the meeting was just one among many over the years between senior politicians to discuss opposition unity, for the near term, it sent a clear message.
Political watchers say the Shiv Sena — with its newfound national ambitions — wants to be at the forefront of any attempt to take on the BJP at the Centre, and both Thackeray and Rao are trying to tighten their grips over their home states by going on the offensive against the ruling party, directly linking it to action by central agencies against their party’s leaders.
Senior Shiv Sena leader and MP Vinayak Raut told ThePrint, “There is a strong anti-BJP wind in the country, but people need to see an alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP’s leadership. K.C. Rao’s efforts in trying to create that leadership are worth mentioning and in that context today’s meeting was extremely important. On one hand, there is West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee, in Uttar Pradesh Akhilesh Yadav is holding fort well. If all these leaders come together and fight polls on a common programme, a political revolution is inevitable.”
“The Shiv Sena will definitely be at the forefront of such a revolution. When nobody expected it, we showed that it is possible in Maharashtra, and the experiment in Maharashtra is also running very well. People see Uddhav ji as a strong political face capable of delivering good governance, so the Shiv Sena’s contribution in creating any anti-BJP front at the Centre is going to be very significant,” he added.
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Shiv Sena’s national ambitions
While this was the first major meeting between Thackeray and any opposition leader over the topic of uniting against the BJP, the Shiv Sena has been sending signals of wanting to be an integral part of such a discussion since more than a year.
Since 2020, the Shiv Sena has pushed for Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar to lead the opposition at the Centre. In December last year, Mamata Banerjee’s meeting with Pawar in Mumbai had also sparked talks of the octogenarian being a key interlocutor for opposition unity. Then on Sunday, Rao too met Pawar after this meeting with Thackeray, and said that all parties will soon meet together, perhaps at Baramati, Pawar’s home turf.
The Shiv Sena and NCP, both constituents of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) in Maharashtra along with the Congress, have been drawing closer and vowed to contest polls together. Shiv Sena insiders say leaders in the party feel a Pawar-led opposition front at the Centre will give the Sena more space and say in national politics than the one led by the Gandhis.
While the Shiv Sena was initially intentionally needling the Congress, its ally in Maharashtra with statements about the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) leadership under the party being ineffective, over the last few months, it has adopted a more cautious stance. Major cities from Maharashtra are headed to civic polls this year, and a combined effort by MVA parties, whether overtly through an alliance, or covertly with some understanding, is the most likely to keep the BJP at bay.
Since Mamata Banerjee’s visit to Mumbai when she met Shiv Sena leader and Uddhav’s son Aaditya Thackeray and Pawar in separate meetings, the Shiv Sena has maintained that an anti-BJP front will not be possible by keeping the Congress out. Similarly, last week, after Thackeray invited Rao to Mumbai, Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut called the scheduled meeting “an important one,” but added that all opposition leaders, including Congress’ Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are in touch with each other.
At the press conference with Rao too, neither Thackeray nor the Telangana CM mentioned the Congress. Party sources said the two leaders also agreed to not take any questions from members of the press.
Political commentator Hemant Desai told ThePrint, “Shiv Sena has national ambitions. Sanjay Raut has been talking about a UPA-2 for over a year. Aaditya Thackeray has declared the party’s national ambitions by saying the Shiv Sena will also focus on elections in other states. Sanjay Raut has made statements about how Uddhav Thackeray can be PM. In that context, the meeting was K.C. Rao was political posturing, not just for the Shiv Sena, but also the TRS.”
He added, Thackeray may have invited Rao, but the need to have this meeting was mutual.
Attempt to consolidate position in home states
The Thackeray-Rao meeting was seemingly to send a message in the national context, but it was just as much about posturing to protect their respective home turfs.
Since the last two weeks, the Shiv Sena has especially stepped on the offensive against the BJP with Raut, who was part of the meeting of the two CMs, first writing to Vice President Venkaiah Naidu about central agencies being used to serve the BJP’s political agenda, and later making a series of allegations against BJP leaders through a high-profile press conference. Raut attended the meeting with Rao along with Thackeray.
Even KCR had been publicly speaking against the BJP’s alleged anti-people policies and Thackeray lauded him for his good work and extended support.
Speaking to ThePrint, political analyst Prakash Bal said, “The way Sanjay Raut spoke in the famous press conference was not without the express permission of Uddhav Thackeray.
They have said we will not take it lying down. They have decided to take the bull by the horns. It is a confrontation and they are sending signals to Modi.”
He added, with an aggressive BJP looking to wrest Shiv Sena-ruled civic bodies, including Mumbai, in polls this year, Thackeray is trying to consolidate his grip by going on the offensive and meetings with leaders such as KC Rao, Mamata Banerjee or Tamil Nadu CM M.K. Stalin who have share a similar agenda helps in optics.
Desai said, “KCR had tried to form a non-Congress, non-BJP front in 2019 too. The BJP’s strength has since then increased in Hyderabad and the party is aggressively expanding in Telangana.”
“This is KCR’s way of pushing back,” he added.
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