If the day began with Rahul Gandhi getting a fist bump from the Shiv Sena, it ended with another ally, Sharad Pawar’s party, glowering firmly.
Mr Gandhi’s Congress co-parents the Maharashtra government with the Sena and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party or NCP. The alliance is 23 years old; within it, divergent approaches are common if not threatening. Mamata Banerjee, Chief Minister of West Bengal, has delivered a star turn at trying to alter that.
Five days ago, Ms Banerjee visited Mumbai to meet with Mr Pawar; because Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray was unavailable, his son and minister Aaditya Thackeray met with Ms Banerjee as she petitioned for an anti-BJP alliance that is not hinged on the Congress.
Ms Banerjee’s aspiration to fashion herself as the centre of this Opposition league has grown after she whacked the BJP with one of its most resounding defeats ever in Bengal earlier this year; in recent months, she has dismissed the Congress as too weak to carry the weight of an entire slew of Opposition parties. “What is the UPA? There is no UPA,” she declared after meeting with Mr Pawar in Mumbai, declaring the once-powerful Congress-led national alliance, of which she was a member, as extinct. Mr Pawar had on that occasion remarked, “Congress had to be part of any anti-BJP alliance”.
Today, Mr Pawar’s second-in-command, Praful Patel, after a working committee meeting of the party said that the party’s senior leaders had agreed “to work with like-minded parties for the coming elections.” He did not specifically mention the Congress. “We will work with Mamata Banerjee,” he said pointedly. Sources say the statement reflects the irritation within Mr Pawar’s party about the Congress being difficult about strategically playing states like Goa so that the two parties are not up against each other. Sharad Pawar has personally spoken with Sonia Gandhi for the alliance in Goa but the congress is not ready to give seats, the NCP is demanding seven seats in the alliance which is not forthcoming from Gundu Rao or P Chidambaram.
There is, so far, neither an official tie-up nor a behind-the-scenes strategy on slicing and dicing turf so that the parties have sway over different regions or constituencies.
All this as Ms Banerjee, in keeping with the spirit of her “There Is No UPA” declaration, has lifted the latch to welcome into her party a series of political leaders from the Congress. If ever there were an implicit non-compete contract between the two outfits, it has been aggressively trashed.
When Ms Banerjee was fighting for re-election in May, the Congress did not ally with her. After she won a third term in Bengal -her biggest result yet – her ire at the Congress has escalated because she says they are ready to fight the BJP aggressively.
It is against this background, of Ms Banerjee’s offensive against the Congress, that the Sena has stepped up as an unlikely emergency contact for Mr Gandhi. For months, Congressmen in Maharashtra have publicly chided the Sena despite their coalition. That sniping has been allegedly predicated on Mr Gandhi’s running discomfort with being a partner of the Sena, whose ideology he sees as non-secular.
But over the weekend, the Sena ran an editorial in its mouthpiece that, despite Ms Banerjee’s visit with Mr Thackeray, remonstrated her for helping the BJP by venting against the Congress. The need of the hour, the editorial underscored, is for the Opposition to work together to displace PM Modi in the next general election in 2024.
This morning, senior Sena leader Sanjay Raut met with Mr Gandhi in Delhi. Mr Raut told reporters after the house visit that the Congress has to be part of any anti-BJP front.
The reason for the party’s public support is to ensure the Congress continues to support the Sena-led government in Maharashtra.
Sources say that Mr. Pawar, who has been mediator for the Sena and the Congress and ensured the three-party government in Maharashtra withstands attempts to dismantle it, is not seriously at odds with the Gandhis. His support of Ms Banerjee – and his carefully-chosen words that do not endorse the Congress as the anchor of the Opposition – serves to exert pressure on the Congress to play nicely in the approaching state elections.