Will the Congress support the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra? Here’s how the drama unfolded today

The saffron alliance between the BJP and Shiv Sena has finally collapsed.

ByPrateek Goyal
Will the Congress support the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra? Here’s how the drama unfolded today
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The day-long political drama to form the government in Maharashtra continues with Congress president Sonia Gandhi conducting multiple meetings on whether or not her party will support the Shiv Sena. It’s still unclear whether the Congress will join the Shiv Sena-led government.

Earlier today, a core committee meeting of the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party took place followed by a meeting between NCP and Shiv Sena leaders at Hotel Taj Lands End in Bandra, Mumbai The meeting was attended by both the Thackerays, Pawar, his nephew Ajit Pawar and Dilip Walse Patil. Thackeray requested the NCP’s support in the formation of the government. A second meeting of the NCP’s core committee then took place at Yashwantrao Chavan Centre in the city.

The NCP told the Shiv Sena that a condition for their support is that the Sena cut its ties from the National Democratic Alliance. The Shiv Sena MP in the Union Cabinet, Arvind Sawant, resigned as minister today.

Meanwhile, the Congress leadership held its own meeting in Delhi. The Congress Working Committee conferred but reached no conclusion on supporting the Sena. At 4 pm, a second meeting took place which included six Congress leaders from Maharashtra: Prithviraj Chauhan, Ashok Chavan, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Balasaheb Thorat, Vijay Wadettiwar and KC Padi. In Delhi, Shiv Sena leaders Milind Narvekar and Anil Desai also met with Congress leader Ahmed Patil.

Gandhi reportedly spoke to the Congress’s MLAs from Maharashtra over the telephone during the course of the day. The MLAs are currently staying in a hotel in Jaipur.

The Congress general secretary, KC Venugopal, issued a press statement saying the Congress Working Committee had a “detailed discussion on the situation in Maharashtra” and that the party would have a “further discussion” with the NCP.

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The impasse in Maharashtra drew towards the end with the Bharatiya Janata Party announcing it “doesn’t have the numbers” to form a government in the state. On Sunday night, Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari invited the Shiv Sena to form the government.

The drama has played out in the weeks since the results of the state Assembly election was declared on October 24. The BJP won 105 seats, the Shiv Sena 56, the NCP 54 and the Congress 44, with the remaining going to others. According to a survey conducted by its local intelligence units, the BJP had expected to win 140 seats in Maharashtra. Its own survey said it would win 90 per cent of 164 seats. 

Despite receiving the political mandate, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance failed to form the government, with the stalemate between the two bringing Maharashtra to the verge of President’s rule. 

In the last 15 days, one name has taken centre stage in the state: Sanjay Raut. Raut is a Rajya Sabha MP and the executive editor of the Sena’s newspaper Saamna. He’s also been aggressively campaigning for the Sena’s demand for the post of chief minister. 

Before the alliance collapsed, the party had been reiterating that the BJP and Shiv Sena “rotate” the post of chief minister for 2.5 years each, and a “50-50 formula” where each party has an equal number of ministers in the Assembly. The BJP has denied that this was ever discussed and has refused. Instead, it offered the Shiv Sena deputy chief ministership and ministerial positions — but was rejected.

Raut has been conducting press conferences on a daily basis where he emphasises that the Sena will settle for “nothing less” than a chief ministerial post for half a term. He’s also indicated several times that the Sena will explore “other options” to form the government in the state — including taking support from the NCP and Congress. Raut’s editorials in Saamna frequently vilify the BJP while his social media is used to take potshots at the party. 

Raut’s been in action even before the announcement of the election results. On October 23, he said the BJP must take the Shiv Sena’s support to form the government even if the Sena secures only 4-5 seats. On October 24, when the results were clear that the BJP scored 105 seats, far lower than its previous tally of 122 seats, Raut announced that Maharashtra’s electorate wanted Aditya Thackeray as chief minister. Aditya Thackeray is the son of Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. 

On October 24, Uddhav Thackeray held a press conference saying it was time the 50-50 formula was implemented. One day later, a poster appeared in Aditya Thackeray’s constituency of Worli, projecting him as the state’s future chief minister. Since then, Raut has kept up the momentum, day in and day out. 

For starters, Raut has consistently said, “MLAs support the Shiv Sena”. He once said 145 MLAs supported his party and then inflated the number to 170 saying it “might reach” 175. This has been refuted by NCP leaders but it hasn’t stopped Raut. 

Last week, Raut also held meetings with NCP chief Sharad Pawar. Pawar said the people gave him the mandate to sit in the Opposition but things have now changed after Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis resigned on Friday. 

While handing over his resignation to the governor, Fadnavis emphasised that the “rotational chief minister” plan had never been “assured”. He also slammed the Shiv Sena: “Uddhav Thackeray on the day of results made it clear that they have their options open and this was a shock for us.” Fadnavis also said he “calls up” Thackeray who doesn’t take his calls. 

Thackeray himself reacted sharply to these statements, saying the “sharing” agreement had been finalised by Amit Shah himself. He also slammed the BJP for trying to “prove him a liar”. He said, “I will not talk to people who call me a liar. I will not tolerate this. The caretaker (chief minister) should not try to prove that I am a liar. I have never spoken lies in my life.”

After Fadnavis’s resignation, various political leaders, including Raut, visited Pawar in his South Mumbai residence. On Friday, a delegation of Congress leaders paid a visit, including Sushil Kumar Shinde, Balasaheb Thorat, Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan. 

As of the weekend, the BJP and Shiv Sena had not formally ended their association or released a statement to that effect. However, their open attacks on each other have diminished any possibility of the alliance panning out. This has strengthened the chance of a Sena-NCP alliance with Congress support. NCP leader Praful Patel had said the decision to support the Sena will be collectively taken by the NCP and Congress.

A few days ago, speculations abounded that BJP leader Nitin Gadkari will be projected as a future chief minister to end the stalemate between the BJP and Shiv Sena. Gadkari is considered to be close to the Thackeray family. This theory was shot down by Gadkari himself who emphasised that Devendra Fadnavis was the chief ministerial face of the BJP in Maharashtra. Gadkari also said no agreement had been struck with the Sena when it came to the chief minister post. 

In the middle of this confusion, the Sena and Congress alleged the BJP “offered crores” to their MLAs to change sides. Congress leader Vijay Wadettiwar said “Rs. 25-50 crore” was being offered to MLAs, while the Sena said one MLA was “offered Rs. 50 crore”. The BJP slammed these accusations, saying horse-trading “is not our culture”. 

However, the Shiv Sena has now moved all its MLAs to a hotel in Mumbai, ostensibly to avoid any risks. The MLAs were initially accommodated in Hotel Rangsharda in Bandra but were moved to The Retreat Hotel in Malad on Friday evening. The Congress exercised even more caution and moved its MLAs to a hotel in Jaipur. 

Parimal Maya Sudhakar from the MIT School of Government in Pune says the Shiv Sena is taking a risk by moving towards the NCP and Congress. “Forming the government with the help of the NCP-Congress will harm the Shiv Sena in the long run. Their cadre and voters will definitely shift towards the BJP. They’ve got themselves into a very dangerous game with their power-hungry MLAs…But they are only looking at the short-term gains instead of future consequences, which will adversely affect them.” 

Sudhakar adds that Raut’s behaviour is clearly managed by Uddhav Thackeray. “The Shiv Sena didn’t want to paint itself as a partner that left the alliance on its own,” Sudhakar says. “But they didn’t want to be bogged down either. That’s why this whole thing started. It’s important to note that there are people in the Congress and NCP who don’t want to support the Sena. However, elected representatives want to do so, so they can keep the BJP out of power.”

Political commentator Suhas Kulkarni claims the Shiv Sena and NCP were in a “secret deal”. “This is because the BJP gave them fewer seats to contest from…By taking help from the NCP and Congress, the Shiv Sena’s trying to resurrect itself by grabbing the post of chief minister.”

He adds, “The Shiv Sena is also aware that outside of Mumbai, elected representatives of the Sena aren’t as loyal towards the party and can cross over to the BJP. Their existence was always in danger so they want to be in power. However, this will shift the Sena’s voter base and cadre to the BJP and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in the future.”

This piece was updated with details of the meetings that took place today.

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