Years ago when Chhagan Bhujbal had quit after 25 years in the Shiv Sena and joined the Congress, he spoke to me of his frustration that few true-blue Congressmen act or agitate on the streets.
“They are so used to power and their soft seats in air-conditioned rooms that they just can’t take the sun and the heat. Shiv Sainiks, on the other hand, are street fighters. They have taken a lot of lathis from the police and even gone to jail, coming out stronger after each such episode.”’
Bhujbal, then, emerged as the lone ‘voice’ in the Congress who, deprived of his street fighters, used his considerable oratory to drive the then Shiv Sena-BJP government up the wall. His relentless provocation and ridicule of Bal Thackeray riled the Sena tiger enough to launch an attack on him but the Congress ultimately succeeded in bringing the Shiv Sena down due to these efforts.
Now I am hearing similar complaints from a host of new, young Congressmen, and some old timers, who are getting very critical of their senior party leaders for being soft on the government, both in Maharashtra and at the Centre. They have begun to develop a restlessness that seems to have not escaped the attention of some of their party leaders.
So it is notable that there is a new aggression growing in the Congress, and that polite but tough messages are filtering downwards right from the top. When Rahul Gandhi was detained thrice in the span of 48 hours by New Delhi police for speaking up for the family of a soldier who had committed suicide for not being able to get his pension dues a couple of months ago, I heard whispers among a section of Congressmen in Bombay that the party should not have allowed the government to get away with something as brazen as arresting an opposition leader for a democratic protest.
“Can you imagine what would have happened to Mumbai if a Congress government had similarly arrested Uddhav Thackeray? Uddhav may not be his father but still Shiv Sainiks would have set Mumbai on fire. Why can’t we do the same?”’
The Congress clearly can’t because, as former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan once told me, they were simply not brought up, politically or culturally, to be rude, abusive, aggressive or downright obscene against their political rivals as some other political parties or leaders are.
But with Gandhi showing the way – he has taken on Narendra Modi in no uncertain terms, yet stopped his supporters in Uttar Pradesh from shouting slogans of `Modi Murdabad’, saying they can defeat the Prime Minister politically without getting personal – I suddenly see a sea change in the attitudes of Congressmen.
In a combined attack – through mere statements, polite yet firm -- leaders of the party compelled Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to acknowledge that the Shivaji memorial in the sea was thought up by a Congress government. But what was more remarkable was that Fadnavis lost his nerve enough to order the house arrest of city Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam on the day of the bhoomipoojan for the memorial. Nirupam had planned black flag demonstrations against demonetisation on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the city on Saturday – in the hype over that event, that demo might have quite escaped attention. However, placing him under house arrest had the opposite effect.
But while the unusual action made national headlines, I was more interested to observe that four or five Congressmen got on to the streets to burn some tyres in protest against Nirupam’s house arrest – which was more than any Congressman was willing to do for Gandhi in New Delhi.
So where had that bravado come from? A closer look led me to a startling discovery – those “Congressmen’’ had recently migrated from Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena to join the Congress whose sudden agitational politics is beginning to appeal to their political aesthetics. These tyre- burning boys were even willing to get arrested but so unexpected was such action from the Congress Party that they quite escaped the notice of the cops who were busy with other duties.
But despite their comic disappointment at non- arrest, it is worth noting that the Congress suddenly should be an option at all for the traditionally agitational kind of political worker – the new blood is obviously energising the Congress enough to unnerve the ruling dispensation into making silly errors of judgment, thereby giving the Congress much political mileage. Leaving even it’s own old guard much bemused.
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