New Delhi: Congress working president Sonia Gandhi is caught between her ‘commitment to secularism’ and her desire to keep the BJP out of power in Maharashtra as she deliberates over the feasibility of partnering the Shiv Sena, ThePrint has learnt.
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar has had telephonic discussions with her twice to explore the possibility of forming a non-BJP government in the state but she has remained non-committal due to this dilemma, according to multiple Congress sources.
“Yes, they have spoken. Pawar saheb will leave for New Delhi this evening to meet her (Sonia Gandhi) tomorrow,” said NCP national spokesperson Nawab Malik Sunday.
Pawar has, however, maintained publicly that the mandate of the NCP — which won 54 seats — was to sit on the opposition benches.
In a meeting with senior party leaders on the Maharashtra political stalemate at 10 Janpath Friday, Sonia Gandhi was learnt to have expressed reservations about any tie-up with the Shiv Sena.
“How will it reflect on our commitment to secularism? You know what the Shiv Sena has done in the past,” a Congress leader quoted her as saying.
Senior party leaders A.K. Antony and K.C. Venugopal were learnt to have echoed her views on the Shiv Sena’s non-secular credentials and opposed any tie-up, said the leader.
Mallikarjun Kharge, former Maharashtra chief ministers Prithviraj Chavan and Ashok Chavan, and senior leaders Balasaheb Thorat and Manikrao Thakre were among those who attended the meeting.
Also read: Shiv Sena fumes after BJP ‘threatens’ President’s rule in Maharashtra
‘Keeping her options open’
Sources privy to the deliberations, however, asserted that Sonia Gandhi was keeping her options open.
“She has reservations but she is also very eager to keep the BJP out of power. You know how the BJP poached 32 MLAs and MPs from the NCP and the Congress ahead of elections. It’s a question of our survival and Soniaji is conscious of that,” a Maharashtra Congress leader told ThePrint.
As many as 40 of 44 Congress MLAs are in favour of putting up a non-BJP government even if it means supporting the Shiv Sena, he added.
On Tuesday, Prithviraj Chavan had said that the Congress hadn’t got any “concrete proposal” from the Shiv Sena. If it comes, “we will discuss it with the high command”, he had told news agency PTI. Congress sources said the Sena hasn’t made any proposal to the Congress directly yet but has been discussing “various possibilities” with the NCP leadership.
Pawar and Sonia are likely to explore and discuss those possibilities when they meet Monday.
As for Sonia Gandhi’s views on the Shiv Sena’s non-secular credentials, another Congress leader pointed out that she had no issues meeting Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) at 10 Janpath, and backing an MNS candidate in Pune in the assembly election.
“If she had no qualms meeting Raj Thackeray and supporting his party, why should her secularism come in the way of an understanding with Uddhav-led Shiv Sena to keep the BJP out of power?” said an All India Congress Committee functionary.
What seems to be preventing the Congress high command from expressing support to a non-BJP formation in Mumbai is the “apprehension” that the Shiv Sena could be using the Congress and the NCP only as “a bargaining chip” in its negotiations with the BJP.
“Once there is clarity that the Shiv Sena will not go with the BJP, there are many possibilities. The Congress can support a Shiv Sena-NCP government from outside or support a government led by Sharad Pawar,” said a Congress leader present at Friday’s meeting at 10 Janpath.
“But, don’t forget that the Sena and the BJP are ideological brethren. Unless and until they formally declare their separation, we are not going to commit anything either way.”
The Shiv Sena is the BJP’s oldest ally but their relationship has been strained over recent years.
While they contested this month’s assembly election as partners, and together have the numbers to form the state government, the Shiv Sena’s demand for a 50-50 distribution of power has put their tie-up on slippery ground.
Also read: Maharashtra tussle continues — BJP won’t cede CM chair, Sena says won’t settle without it