Congress closes door on Sena but NCP window still open

Manoj C G, ZEESHAN SHAIKH
After day-long discussions with its Maharashtra leadership, the Congress did not give the waiting Sena a letter of support. (Express photo/Prashant Nadkar)

The Congress Monday virtually dashed Shiv Sena’s hopes of forming a government under its leadership in Maharashtra as the party high command chose ideological compulsions over practical politics. It was classical Congress at play as the party’s central leadership did not buckle under pressure from its MLAs, its Maharashtra leadership, and a forceful overture by the Sena with Uddhav Thackeray speaking to Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Sources said both Sonia and former chief Rahul Gandhi were not in favour of backing a Sena-led government.

So, after day-long discussions with its Maharashtra leadership, the Congress did not give the waiting Sena a letter of support, forcing Aaditya Thackeray and Eknath Shinde to meet Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari with empty hands and seeking more time. a request Raj Bhavan didn’t accept.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-GfGJH9DCw&t=1s

Sources in the Congress said the party would certainly back an NCP-led Government. The Congress has now left to it the NCP which was given a day’s time by the Governor to secure the requisite numbers and negotiate with the Sena.

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The question now is whether Sena will play second fiddle and join or support a government led by NCP. After al, it had broken its ties with the BJP after the latter had refused its demand for a rotational chief ministership. It is also to be seen whether the Congress will provide outside support or be part of an NCP-led Government in which the Sena is also an ally.

At least two senior Congress leaders, meanwhile, told The Indian Express that they expected a deadlock and that the state could be heading for a spell of President’s Rule.

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A day after the BJP conveyed to the Governor its unwillingness to form the government, action shifted to Jaipur and then Delhi. Most Congress MLAs, lodged in a hotel in Jaipur, and top leaders were prodding the central leadership to back the Sena. The Sena, too, signaled its intention to snap all ties with the BJP by asking Arvind Sawant, its minister in the Union Cabinet, to resign. The resignation, interestingly, has not been accepted until late tonight. For its part, the BJP observed restraint and did not hit out the Sena barring some stray tweets by some party members — a sign that all options were open.

But Sonia, as also most of the senior AICC leaders, sources said, were not comfortable with the idea of backing a Sena government arguing that the party cannot compromise on its ideology. The Congress high command, however, did not rule out any possibility publicly and kept the Sena waiting.

The Congress Working Committee met this morning to discuss the situation at Sonia’s 10, Janpath residence. It was decided that top Maharashtra leaders — former Union Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, former Chief Ministers Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan and MPCC president Balasaheb Thorat, his predecessor Manikrao Thakre, Avinash Pande, Rajeev Satav and Rajni Patil — be called to Delhi for further discussions. Two Sena leaders, meanwhile, landed in Delhi and held talks with Ahmed Patel but he did not give any commitment. One of them was said to be Uddhav’s personal assistant Milind Narvekar.

Acting Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis and Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray during an event. (Express Photo)

Top Congress leaders Ahmed Patel, Ambika Soni, A K Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge and K C Venugopal joined Maharashtra leaders at Sonia’s residence. Sources said most Central leaders were opposed to the idea of backing a Sena-led government. Rahul, who walked into the meeting midway, too conveyed his opposition. “We cannot compromise on our ideology...it is a fact that the state leaders are demanding...and most of the leaders here are not in favour,” a senior leader told The Indian Express. Meanwhile, Uddhav rang up Sonia. She, however, did not give any commitment.

As Aaditya and top Sena leaders headed to Raj Bhawan to meet the Governor in Mumbai, the Congress issued a terse statement. “The Congress working committee met this morning and had a detailed discussion on the situation in Maharashtra after which a consultation was held with Maharashtra Congress leaders. The Congress president has spoken to Sharad Pawarji. The party will have further discussion with NCP,” the statement issued by AICC general secretary KC Venugopal said. There was no mention of Sena. Sources said top Congress leaders will meet again Tuesday to discuss the way forward.

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Sources said apart from ideological incompatibility, party leaders recalled the frosty relationship between Sonia and Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray. The animosity was so acute that she was upset when former President Pranab Mukherjee went and met Thackeray in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election despite her advice against such an interaction. In his book “The Coalition Years”, Mukherjee revealed: “I took a decision to meet Thackeray despite Sonia Gandhi’s disapproval because I felt that the man who had broken away from his traditional coalition partner to support my candidature, should not feel humiliated.”

Bal Thackeray was also very critical of Sonia until his death over her foreign origin.

“Sonia Gandhi was not enthusiastic about my meeting Bal Thackeray and advised me to avoid it if possible. Sonia Gandhi’s reservations about Thackeray were based on her own perception of his policies,” he said. “I returned to Delhi, and the following morning Girija Vyas called on me. She informed me that Sonia Gandhi and Ahmed Patel were upset about my meeting with Thackeray. I understood the cause of their unhappiness but, as I have explained, I did what I believed was right. I had to keep in mind the sensitivity of the advice given by Sharad Pawar — an important ally of the UPA-II,” Mukherjee said in his book.

Thackeray was also very critical of Sonia until his death over her foreign origin. He and his party’s mouthpiece Saamna often lampooned Sonia and her son Rahul with Saamna once calling her “Italian mummy”.

But it is also a fact that the Congress never had qualms of associating with the Sena locally in Maharashtra. The Sena’s first ever political rally in 1967 was attended by senior Congress leader Ramrao Adik. The ‘60s and ‘70s saw Sainiks getting embroiled in street battles with members of leftist parties for supremacy in the mill worker heartland of Parel-Girgaum. That was when the Sena’s project of breaking the back of the trade union movement began and gave strength to the belief then that Congress governments that ruled the state were soft toward Sena.

In 1971, the K Kamaraj-led Congress (O) allied with the Shiv Sena and asked it to contest three seats from Mumbai. In 1978, the Sena allied with Congress(I) fielding 33 candidates in the Assembly polls but failed to win a single seat. In 1980, the Sena supported Congress(I) in the Lok Sabha elections. Pawar and Congress leaders like A R Antulay and Sudhakarrao Naik were never antagonistic towards the Sena. Pawar and Antulay especially were known personal friends of Thackeray.