Frequent about turns are politically unprofitable
Around the time that Sharad Pawar was splitting the Congress for a second time in 1999, many of those who are seen as Nationalist Congress Party stalwarts today had gone missing. One of these was firebrand leader RR Patil who had kept the Congress flag flying through its years in the Opposition. Later, he ended up as Pawar’s most trusted aide through the 15 years of the Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra between 1999 and 2014.
When he resurfaced from underground in 1999 and some reporters asked what had taken him so long to join the NCP, he said, “Until yesterday, I was praising the Congress and Sonia Gandhi to the skies. I was making emotional appeals to the people on how she was bringing up her kachcha bachchas (raw/young kids) all alone after the assassination of her husband. Now, you tell me, how do I go before the same people and malign her for being a foreigner? Won’t they throw shoes at me?” It took time for Patil to decide his future was with Pawar, but his dilemma was genuine. People may have short memories, but they do remember sharp 360 degree turnabouts and it was no different even with Sharad Pawar a few years later. Forced into an alliance with the Congress by his party workers against his will, he took the first opportunity to exit the alliance in 2014 and through the next five years continued dilly-dallying with the Bharatiya Janata Party on and off. But this dalliance affected his voter base substantially and he was persuaded to return to the Congress before the 2019 general elections to resume an alliance, which has been the more natural bonding for the NCP. That not only consolidated the voter base for both parties but also, stunningly, propelled them to government in Maharashtra.
There are lessons there for Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray. After slamming the BJP and Narendra Modi through the Lok Sabha elections barely 10 months ago, he has now taken an about turn in support of the BJP, surpassing all others in calling for “a stone for a stone and a sword for a sword” that could create quite a conflagration among people.
Despite an electrifying campaign in May last summer, none of his supporters who peopled his rallies in such large numbers voted for the Congress or NCP as he had exhorted. The Shiv Sena was then in an alliance with the BJP and a friend closely connected with MNS workers had told me then, “They had saffron in their DNA. No matter how much they might have admired Raj Thackeray, they said when they went to the polling booth, their eyes automatically locked into the Shiv Sena or BJP symbols and their fingers went to the lotus and bow-and-arrow buttons of their free will. “We just could not press the panja or ghadi buttons,” they bemoaned.”
These same supporters have not yet forgotten Raj’s visits to Sonia Gandhi and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, two bitter opponents of the BJP. Sonia had noted that the MNS votes didn’t transfer to the Congress and turned down the proposal of a formal alliance with the party whereupon Raj had exhorted his workers to support Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi against the BJP, which some had begun to do in some measure before the Assembly polls in 2019. Now they have been told to go saffron again and most of his workers are disturbed at his unprofitable inconsistency.
Even Pawar at one time was accused by his party of allowing personal interests dictate his political choices, but then he was playing his own game and swiftly made course corrections in the nick of time. Raj Thackeray, on the other hand, has allowed himself to be played by both sides with no advantage accruing to his workers. He ran one of the most searing opposition campaigns of May 2019, but diverted any advantage it may have brought to the Congress and NCP. Now he goes militant again to favour not his party workers, but the BJP. Not the best way to gain loyal supporters or consolidate his own voter base. He is clearly scoring only self goals.