In the days before the Congress’s Bharat Jodo Yatra arrived in Maharashtra, the media and political circles in the state were abuzz with a guessing game: will Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackrey and Nationalist Congress Party’s Sharad Pawar walk with Rahul Gandhi and when?
The curiosity was understandable. Their coming together would signal whether the Maha Vikas Aghadi was still a political force to reckon with. MVA is the coalition of the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena that was thrown out of power after Eknath Shinde, now the chief minister, split the Sena and allied with the BJP five months ago. The absence of Thackeray and Pawar would convey as much significance.
In the event, Pawar couldn’t make it as he was hospitalised and recommended a couple of weeks of rest. But his daughter and MP Supriya Sule appeared in his stead on Thursday, along with NCP’s Maharashtra chief Jayant Patil and former state minister Jitendra Awhad.
Uddhav Thackray could not make it for health reasons either, but his son Aditya Thackeray walked with Gandhi on Friday in Hingoli, along with Shiv Sena’s Ambadas Danve and Sachin Ahir.
The appearance of NCP and Sena leaders, especially Sule and Thackeray junior, put to rest, at least for now, the question of MVA’s survival. Which is significant in itself but also because elections to the Mumbai municipal corporation, the richest in the country, are around the corner. It now appears more likely the three parties will contest the elections in coalition.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra will cover nearly 380 km in Maharashtra over 15 days. Gandhi, who is in the third month of walking from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, where the yatra will end in January, is scheduled to travel through five districts of Maharashtra covering 15 assembly and five parliamentary constituencies.
But will Gandhi’s yatra enable his party, and with it MVA, to make a comeback in the state? That’s the big question.
Ashok Chavan show in Nanded
Gandhi’s yatra entered Maharashtra on November 7, at Degloor in Nanded – to a grand welcome, under a statue of Shivaji no less, by a battery of state top Congress leaders, Ashok Chavan, Prithviraj Chavan, Sushilkumar Shinde, Nana Patole, and Balasaheb Thorat.
The state leaders had gathered a massive crowd, carrying nearly 3,000 torches, for the welcome, and Gandhi’s and Chavan’s faces beamed from thousands of posters. Gandhi and the yatris walked for 9 km, the first time during the yatra they had walked at night, and arrived at a Gurudwara at midnight. Planned or not, this made for great optics, as Gandhi arrived at the gurudwara just in time to ring in Guru Nanak Jayanti.
Gandhi led a relatively smooth 106-km walk in Nanded. Not least because the district is a stronghold of the Congress. It’s the home turf of party heavyweight Ashok Chavan, former chief minister of Maharashtra.
At a grand public rally on November 10, the first in the yatra’s Maharashtra leg, the applause when Chavan was called to the stage was decibels higher than for any other leader, including Gandhi. Besides the developmental work he is credited with doing in the district, Chavan also enjoys popularity because of his father, the late Shankarrao Chavan, former state chief minister and union minister.
Chavan seemingly spared no effort to prepare for the yatra and mobilise a huge crowd. Significantly so as recent media reports had speculated that he could jump ship and join the Shinde’s rebel Shiv Sena. Chavan was among the 11 MLAs who did not make it to the vote of confidence which Shinde’s new government ended up winning. The reports suggested that he was unhappy with the Congress for promoting “outsider” Nana Patole, who defected to the party from the BJP, to key positions over him. Chavan also raised eyebrows recently when he met with Abdul Sattar, a rebel Shiv Sena leader. So if nothing else, the Nanded leg of the Bharat Jodo Yatra put to rest speculation about Chavan and the state of the Congress in the district. What’s more, Chavan’s daughter Shreejaya made her political debut in the yatra. Her face was prominently placed on posters put up in the district, and she walked with Gandhi as well.
‘Projects snatched by Gujarat’
What impact the yatra will have on Gandhi’s mass appeal, if any at all, is yet to be seen, but in Maharashtra he made the right noises. His speeches had references to make Maharashtra’s voters take note. In a corner meeting in Nanded on Wednesday, for example, he alleged that projects like the Vedanta Foxconn semiconductor plant and the Tata Airbus military aircraft venture were being taken away from Maharashtra and given to Gujarat by the Narendra Modi government. The reason was the upcoming assembly election in Gujarat. He repeated the allegations at another public rally the next day.
The Congress MP also visited Narsi village in Nanded, where his father Rajiv Gandhi had addressed a public meeting just the day before his assassination in 1991. He offered flowers to his father’s portrait and met people from cooperative societies – milk, sugar, textile mills – and unorganised sector workers who shared their problems with him.
In Nanded and elsewhere in Maharashtra, Gandhi largely spoke about unemployment, demonetisation and inflation, subjects he has stuck to throughout the yatra.
Getting along with Shiv Sena
“When the Maha Vikas Aghadi government was formed, a Common Minimum Programme was made, for which we had to find a middle path between the Congress’s and the Shiv Sena’s ideologies,” senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh told a press conference in Nanded. “Even the Shiv Sena has understood that the BJP and RSS is a danger to the country, society, democracy and the people. This enlightenment has happened to them, and they are most welcome to walk with us. Times change, people change.”
This middle path was seemingly given a new life on November 11, when Gandhi and Aditya Thackeray walked side by side for nearly two hours in Hingoli and, by embracing each other at the end, supplied a likely crucial picture in the context of Maharashtra politics.
Time will tell.
Pictures by Tanishka Sodhi.