Mumbai: On Saturday last week, the Shiv Sena slammed its Maharashtra ally the Congress saying it is “weak and ineffective”, calling for the opposition party at the Centre to introspect.
Through an editorial in its mouthpiece, Saamana, the Shiv Sena also indirectly pushed for Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar to lead the opposition at the Centre, essentially the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), saying every person should benefit from his experience.
The Shiv Sena’s barbs drew a sharp reaction from the Congress, with former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan saying the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena isn’t part of the UPA to comment on its leadership and that the alliance with the Shiv Sena was limited to Maharashtra.
Over the past few months, the Shiv Sena has been frequently needling the Congress, always evoking a tart response and triggering talks of a rift in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance of the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress. This, despite the fact that both the Shiv Sena and Congress are dependent on each other to keep the BJP away from forming a government in Maharashtra.
The provoking is, however, deliberate, political experts and party insiders said, adding the Shiv Sena wants to keep up the pressure on a beleaguered Maharashtra Congress by cosying up to the NCP and making the grand old party feel alienated, ensuring that it clings to the MVA even tighter for power.
The occasional sparring also helps the Shiv Sena pander to its core voter base, which is largely pro-Hindutva and anti-Congress.
Moreover, political observers said, the Shiv Sena may also be aiding the NCP’s covert efforts for their last roll of the dice in getting its president, the octogenarian Sharad Pawar, play a nationally-significant role.
Shiv Sena-Congress dynamic
The Congress was battered in Maharashtra after the 2014 assembly polls, and further decimated in 2019 when it emerged as the party with the lowest tally among the four main political outfits — the BJP, Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress.
Moreover, internal politics, factionalism and the lack of a strong leadership has kept the party from regrouping in the state that sends 48 MPs to the Lok Sabha — the second-largest after Uttar Pradesh.
In the three-party MVA government, the Congress has been 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, the party has been overlooking differences because the need to keep the BJP out of power is more important.
“One cannot deny that the Congress is weak in Maharashtra and needs an alliance to stay afloat. The Shiv Sena and NCP have an understanding to put pressure on the Congress, alienate it by drawing closer to each other, and compel the Congress to stay with the MVA for its own sake in future elections, but, by giving it less seats,” a senior Congress functionary said.
The Shiv Sena is eyeing the 2022 polls to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which has been the Sena’s turf and the nerve centre of its influence in Maharashtra.
With the BJP aggressively looking to wrest the civic body from the Shiv Sena, the latter is keen to consolidate votes across Mumbai’s myriad communities and guard its citadel.
Party leaders, including Maharashtra CM and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray, have called for MVA allies to contest the BMC elections together.
However, Mumbai Congress leaders, including the newly appointed city unit president Bhai Jagtap, are insistent on fighting solo.
The Shiv Sena and Congress have been arch enemies at the local level. Also, Mumbai Congress leaders are certain of having to play second fiddle to the Sena in Mumbai if the MVA contests together — setting a pattern for future elections too.
The NCP, meanwhile, is in favour of fighting the BMC polls as an alliance as it doesn’t have much of a presence in Mumbai, and contesting as part of the MVA will give the party a base to grow.
A Mumbai-based Shiv Sena leader, who did not wish to be named, said, “The BJP will give everything it has in this BMC election, so the last thing that the Shiv Sena needs is the division of votes. But, local leaders from both the Congress and the Shiv Sena are insecure about losing their turf and seats, not just in the 2022 BMC polls but also as a ripple effect in the 2024 Lok Sabha and assembly polls if the two parties ally.”
Political analyst Hemant Desai said, “Comments by Mumbai Congress leaders about contesting BMC elections solo must have made the Shiv Sena apprehensive.
“The Marathi votes will get divided because the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena will work with the BJP one way or the other. Although the Shiv Sena has been trying to attract North Indian votes over the past few years by organising festivals and events like the Chhath Puja, the controversy with Kangana Ranaut may impact these votes,” Desai said.
“If Congress contests solo, the Shiv Sena will lose some of the Dalit, migrants and Muslim votes too. It will leave the Shiv Sena on a sticky wicket,” he added.
Sena attempt to retain its core voter base
The Shiv Sena’s decision to join forces with the Congress and NCP to form a government in Maharashtra last year had raised several eyebrows.
The Sena’s former ally-turned-rival BJP has used every opportunity to mock the former’s Hindutva agenda by criticising its alliance with the Congress.
For the 2022 Mumbai civic polls too, the BJP is most likely to drive the same campaign against the Shiv Sena and tap old Sena voters who may now be on the fence due to the party’s tie-up with the Congress in the state.
A Shiv Sena functionary said the party is concerned that its alliance with the “secular” Congress, even at the state level, might drive its loyal hard-core Marathi, anti-Congress vote bank in Mumbai to the BJP.
“So, we need to make anti-Congress statements every once in a while to show that we still have our individual ideology. We can’t risk our core voters leaving us for the BJP. Similarly, the Congress too needs to publicly take a dig at us every once in a while,” he said.
“But, when it comes to sitting on the same table and working together in the state government, there is no issue between the Congress and the Shiv Sena,” he added.
Maharashtra CM Thackeray and even his son, Aaditya Thackeray, a state cabinet minister, have refrained from publicly criticising the Congress in the one year of the MVA government. CM Thackeray has often gone on record to talk about his cordial relations with Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi. But while the Shiv Sena’s leadership shows restraint, the party strikes through its mouthpiece Saamana, as well as its executive editor Sanjay Raut, also the Sena’s chief spokesperson.
For instance, a Saamana editorial in June had called the Congress an “old creaking cot, which keeps making noise”.
Earlier this month, Raut, a Rajya Sabha MP, had said the Congress is now weak and there is an urgent need for the opposition to come together and strengthen the UPA.
On Pawar’s 80th birthday this month, the Shiv Sena through Saamana threw a veiled taunt at the Gandhi family, saying the NCP president has the potential to lead the country, and he could have become the PM in 1991 if it weren’t for the “north Indian lobby” that stood against him.
This frequent needling is making Congress leaders take a more aggressive stance against the Shiv Sena.
At an event to mark the Congress’ foundation day in Mumbai Monday, Chavan, a minister in the MVA cabinet, unequivocally warned that “there will be no government without the Congress”.
Maharashtra Congress president Balasaheb Thorat, another minister in the Thackeray-led cabinet, also said there were unresolved issues with the Shiv Sena and that his party will not tolerate anyone hurting its pride or insulting its leaders.
Two other Congress ministers, Aslam Shaikh and Varsha Gaikwad, said they wouldn’t care about their ministerial berths if the Shiv Sena continued lashing out at the party.
Batting for Sharad Pawar as UPA chairperson
Besides slamming the Congress as an ineffective opposition, the Shiv Sena has also been increasingly batting for Pawar, seen as the architect of the MVA, to be the architect of the UPA as well.
Pawar, who celebrated his 80th birthday earlier this month, has clarified he has no intention of taking over as the UPA chairperson. But, this would be the last chance for the once PM-hopeful to play a significant role in national politics.
As of now, the Shiv Sena is not a part of the UPA, and 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.
A senior Congress leader said senior NCP leaders were tapping Congress members who have been unhappy with the current system of leadership within the party and trying to get them to rally behind Pawar as the leader of the opposition front.
“This is instigated not directly by Sharad Pawar, but people close to him. He is already 80. He can’t wait till the 2024 elections,” the leader added.
The buzz about Pawar possibly heading the UPA especially gained ground after the death of veteran Congress leader Ahmed Patel, who was a key interlocutor to coordinate between the Congress and other parties. Congress leaders too admit that Patel’s death has left a vacuum and neither Sonia Gandhi as the current UPA chairperson nor Rahul Gandhi can actively play this role.
Political analyst Prakash Bal said, “There is a vacuum after the death of Ahmed Patel. There seems to be some arrangement to have Sharad Pawar as the convenor of the UPA. Regional party leaders such as Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik or Uddhav Thackeray will not speak with Rahul Gandhi. They will speak with Sharad Pawar.”
“He doesn’t need to be the chairperson. He just needs to play that role. The Shiv Sena seems to be helping this agenda,” he added.