Senior Journalist & Author
Going by exit poll survey indicators, the outcome of the 2019 Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly polls appears to be another set of bad news for the Congress. The make-or-mar moment for the Congress has entered its most decisive phase. Party’s interim chief Sonia Gandhi was to address nine public meetings in Maharashtra, but she failed to turn up in any. In Haryana, too, her rally at Mahendragarh was abruptly called off. For the first time since the Sitaram Kesri era, the Congress faced a situation where its chief did not step out of the house during the poll campaign.
The silent support base of the grand old party, as per exit poll agencies, across Maharashtra, is evaporating. In the Mumbai metropolis alone, among Dalits, Christians, Muslims, North and South Indian votes, only Muslims and a smaller slice of Christian voters seem to have backed the Congress. Senior Congress leaders say they were stunned that in party strongholds like Nanded and Karad, traditional party supporters moved to the BJP in droves on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s thrust on muscular nationalism and the BJP’s plank of cultural nationalism.
While the Congress is in urgent need of new leadership, organisational revamp and accountability at all levels of party hierarchy, party leaders at various levels of hierarchy are unable to force the issue. The million-dollar question is whether Rahul Gandhi would accept the mantle of leadership within a short span of quitting the high office. After October 24, it will not be surprising to hear voices, appeals, Twitter calls asking for ‘Rahul lao’. Bizarre as it may sound, many think Rahul’s return at the Congress helm of affairs may bring back disgruntled leaders like Ashok Tanwar in Haryana and Sanjay Nirupam in Maharashtra back to the party fold.
Interestingly, a section of the Congress feels the actual verdict on October 24 may have a lot more in store in Maharashtra while accepting the exit poll findings that the BJP and ally Shiv Sena would do well in the state.
Conventional wisdom points at the Sena abiding by the ‘coalition dharma’, accepting junior-partner status and letting young Aaditya Thackeray learn lessons of governance under Devendra Fadnavis. However, there is another side of the Sena which may turn euphoric, a tad more ambitious if the News 18-IPSOS projection of the Sena crossing the 100-seat mark becomes a reality.
In such a scenario, the vanquished parties — the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress — would desperately offer the Sena unconditional support in exchange for dumping its senior partner at any point during the new innings. The Sena is known to bargain hard when it comes to sharing ministerial berths and portfolios. It would, therefore, be interesting how Fadnavis, Amit Shah and BJP working president JP Nadda negotiate the phase. The Sena has been the BJP’s longest and ideologically compatible ally. But of late, it has been acting as strident opposition to the BJP both inside and outside Maharashtra. Some of the editorials and headlines in the Saamana mouthpiece have been far more critical of the BJP, Modi and Fadnavis than any left-of-centre publication.
There is a reason for it. When the BJP and the Sena had joined hands in 1989, the broad understanding between LK Advani and Bal Thackeray was that the BJP would get more seats in the Lok Sabha elections and the Sena would contest more seats in the state assembly polls. But since 2009, the BJP has been winning more seats than the Sena [in 2014, they contested separately. The BJP won 122 and Sena 63 seats and formed the government together] .
The political and inter-personal equations have undergone a sea change since 2014 that marked the emergence of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah jodi. A section of the Sena thinks the BJP’s rise and reach has a potential of swallowing the Sena. Some opinion and exit poll surveys for the 2019 Assembly polls predict the BJP netting anything between 75 and 90 per cent seats it is contesting as part of the alliance. In the context of the BJP’s spectacular performance, the Sena seems to be running out of time to keep its regional identity and primacy in Maharashtra politics.
All eyes would be on the young Aaditya Thackeray: whether he would indulge in the more confrontational and adventurous course or put his head down to learn the ropes of governance. A position in the government has the potential to prepare him for future challenges but high expectations from the cadre and past legacy, illusion of grandeur or a combination of these factors may trigger a new situation. Both the NCP and the Congress are eagerly looking for it.
Incidentally, in its early years, the Sena was derogatorily referred to as the ‘Vasant Sena’ after legendary Congress leaders Vasantrao Naik and Vasantdada Patil provided the Sena credibility by accepting its agenda of approving 80 per cent employment of locals in business establishments. Both Naik and Patil had detested the dominance of Gujarati, Parsi, Sindhi and Bohra Muslim enterprises in Mumbai and Maharashtra. Bal Thackeray played his role as the Congress’ ‘hitman’ till he became a cult figure on his own.
One such election where the Shiv Sena helped out the Congress was the 1967 Lok Sabha poll. Congress stalwart VK Krishna Menon had been denied party ticket and was contesting as an independent candidate from the Bombay North East constituency and campaigning on his proximity to Jawaharlal Nehru. His election campaign posters read ‘Nehru’s vision, Menon’s mission’and showed Menon within a Nehru silhouette. Indira Gandhi, who was fighting to isolate Menon, instructed her key aides to get the former Defence Minister defeated at ‘all costs’. Thackeray, Shiv Sena chief, and Marmik campaigned for Congress nominee SG Barve. A day before voting, Marmik published a cartoon that showed Menon with two foreign girls, his hands around their shoulders. The caption insinuated that they were why Menon wanted to be Defence Minister. Barve won the election.
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