Uddhav’s ambition, Gandhi’s dilemma, and Pawar’s pattern
Television news screens can be surreal without intending to be, as on Wednesday. News flashed of yet another meeting between the leaders of Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) – one more in a seemingly endless saga that started about three weeks ago – in New Delhi to hammer out a common minimum programme (CMP) that will guide their unnatural and ideologically dissimilar alliance with the Shiv Sena should they together form the government in Maharashtra. News also flashed about a loud protest held in the capital by Congress workers against the removal of the Special Protection Group (SPG) cover to party president Sonia Gandhi and her children Rahul and Priyanka.
That the SPG cover was removed by an increasingly insecure government of the day reeks of vendetta politics, especially given that the Gandhis have lost family members to assassinations. That the Congress party chose to take to the streets over this issue rather than any of the dozen others like economic slowdown or electoral corruption through bonds or Kashmir clampdown top-lining the nation’s news speaks of a stunning disconnect with ground realities. Had it taken on the Modi government on issues affecting millions of citizens, as an opposition party ought to have, it might have found more resonance for its protest on the SPG cover removal.
This disconnect is what many of its 44 newly-elected MLAs have been citing in the last few days; they would like to ally even with the Sena and claim a share in power while the party leadership has been prevaricating. To be sure, the Congress is placed fourth in the tally of seats won and, therefore, has no obligation to help form the government. That it suddenly found itself in this position must have caused its leadership more unease than satisfaction. Commentators, advisors and its own leaders who rail against the party perhaps fail to see that the Congress has a great deal to lose in this game when the unnatural alliance comes apart.
The Congress’ prevarication is not without basis, given its long and complex history with the Sena. Never mind that the Sena in its early days received tacit or otherwise encouragement from the then Congress leaders to defeat their own like VK Krishna Menon or front their opposition to communists and the late Bal Thackeray lustily cheered the late Indira Gandhi for her move to impose the Emergency, there are key ideological differences and personal baggage. There can be no common ground between the parties on issues like Bharat Ratna to VD Savarkar or linguistic sub-nationalism.
Thackeray – and by extension, the Sena – was particularly acerbic to Sonia Gandhi. His disparaging imitation of her accented Hindi, snide remarks about her character, antipathy to the dynastic principle while remaining blind to nurturing his own are matters of record. In an interview to his party paper months before he passed away in 2012, Thackeray referred to Gandhi pushing Rahul as PM and asked if “the PM’s post is a chair to be found in Bhendi Bazar”. Uddhav Thackeray too has been highly critical and caustic, even referring to Rahul Gandhi as unpatriotic.
More than a CMP, what would determine the fate of this unnatural alliance based on anti-BJPism is common minimum understanding. Can the parties arrive at this? If they failed to find this in three weeks of hectic negotiations, does it signal an unstable alliance already? How far can they hope that the anti-BJPism will take them? There are strong arguments for the Congress to ally and equally strong to not; either decision will have adverse consequences.
At the heart of this lies the game that the old Maratha warrior Sharad Pawar has been playing. Pawar is a pro at the game of manoeuvre and intrigue, he holds the trump card. Only he has held one-to-one meetings with Sonia Gandhi, Uddhav Thackeray, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The last, we were told, was on the issue of providing relief to farmers reeling under floods and drought but there must have been more. Pawar is personally secular, but politically and ideologically flexible; he had offered the BJP support in 2014 without being asked. He had cut across party lines to form a government back in 1978. He had also challenged Gandhi’s leadership in 1999 and set up his own off-shoot party.
The question is not only if Gandhi can ally with an ideological opponent like Thackeray but also if she can trust Pawar enough to not throw the Congress under the bus in the months ahead if this government becomes a reality.
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