The first time the Shiv Sena-BJP came to power in 1995 in Maharashtra, the Congress was in a stupor. This was the first time they had lost power and there was no one who knew how to be a fitting Opposition leader. The only man who kept the Congress flag flying those days was Chhagan Bhujbal. But he was a recent entrant to the party, his political DNA was made of different matter.
Bhujbal, who was with the Sena earlier, lamented once to me, “Congress workers are used to sitting on their backsides and getting fat on their fortunes by their party being in power. Sena workers, on the other hand, have a hunger in them. They are always on the streets, braving the elements but also police lathis and lockups. Nothing dims their passion … Congressmen [only] ingratiate themselves with the government to save their vested interests.”
Whatever the Congress may say about Bhujbal today, they owe it to him for bringing the Sena down in the late 1990s. He was then the only leader who exposed their scams and urged his supporters, who had also joined the Congress along with him, to take to the streets. It is from him that I learnt how important street agitations were for political parties - and voter recall. Congressmen remain oblivious of this fact even today.
Around that time Sharad Pawar had wanted Bhujbal to take over Mumbai Congress but senior leaders did not trust him to hand over such an important organisation to his protégé and a former Shiv Sainik at that. The party continued to be lethargic under what the Shiv Sena might describe as ‘air-conditioned’ Congress leaders’ and lost every municipal election since the 1990s.
Narayan Rane, another Sainik who joined the Congress a decade later, could have been an asset but he came with a lot of baggage. He thought the party owed it to him to make him CM and even took on Sonia Gandhi when that did not happen. By the time he learnt the ways of the Congress, it was too late.
But there is a third Shiv Sainik who has broken the Congress’ glass ceiling. Sanjay Nirupam, a former journalist and a former Shiv Sena MP, now heads the Mumbai Congress. This may have not been possible a few years ago for the party has a tradition of not entrusting such positions to ‘outsiders’. But it is a testimony to the indolent state of the Maharashtra Congress and a tribute to Nirupam’s ability to absorb, unlike Rane, the Congress culture, and stand without a godfather, unlike Bhujbal, that he seems to have brought the city Congress out of its stupor with few axes to grind but a hunger to prove himself in a job he is envied for by many.
I think his transition is remarkable, given that while in the Sena he had been rather a loud mouth against the same person he bows to in reverence as his party president today — but then as Bhujbal once told me in a different context, “Sometimes we have to say things our leaders want to hear without having any conviction about the words we mouth.”
I believe the aggression that Nirupam inherited from the Sena tempered with the refinement that is natural to the Congress now gives Bombay the best chance of a regime change in decades. For the Sena has been winning local polls only because the Congress has been, well, losing because of its lethargy and sheer lack of stomach for a street fight. I notice that Nirupam has not shed his appetite for the latter while having learnt the Congress’s ropes better than Rane or even Bhujbal.
But whether he can overcome the Congress’s inherent defeatism remains the million-rupee question.