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Congress-Sena alliance: Wise or unwise?

Rasheed Kidwai | Updated on December 05, 2019 Published on December 05, 2019

The Congress may see itself as a pro-Hindu party, but thorny issues are likely to draw blood in Maharashtra

Sonia Gandhi, it seems, has managed to hit several birds with one stone. Her method of consultation — talking to as many people as possible and then taking a decision — is largely being seen as a smart move in the context of recent developments in Maharashtra. And that is why November 28, 2019, will be marked as a significant day in the 135-year-old history of the Indian National Congress.

That was the day when the Congress joined a government in Maharashtra headed by its former political foe, the Shiv Sena. Though the Congress president was not present at the magnificent swearing-in at Mumbai’s Shivaji Park, Madhya Pradesh’s Congress chief minister Kamal Nath was right there in the front row, in the company of other party stalwarts such as Ahmad Patel, Kapil Sibal and Abhishek Manu Singhvi, as well as DMK supremo MK Stalin and other allies.

The Congress decision to support the Sena was not an easy one. Insiders point out that a range of leaders — from Gandhi, her son Rahul and former prime minister Manmohan Singh to former minister AK Antony and Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel — were “instinctively” against it. But Nath passionately argued for it, recalling how in 1979-80, when the party was out of power, it had adopted a “pragmatic” approach to seek friendship with Sena leader Balasaheb Thackeray who, incidentally, had supported the Emergency. It was also argued that while the Sena, since its inception, was a chauvinistic and boisterous party, it was not a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-affiliated body.

Nath’s line of pragmatism gained momentum when Maharashtra leaders Prithviraj Chavan, Ashok Chavan and Balasaheb Thorat put Gandhi in touch with many Muslim Congress functionaries who supported a tie-up with the Sena, which is largely perceived as an anti-Muslim outfit. Patel, Baghel and former minister Jairam Ramesh, until then opposing a Congress-Sena alliance, came up with a compromise formula which stated that the pact with the Sena and the state government would be restricted to a common minimum programme (CMP). As disparate political entities, the Congress, the Sena and the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party, another partner in the government, would continue to have the freedom to profess and practise their core ideology. This fine print distinction holds the key to the fate of the government led by Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray.

In realpolitik, Gandhi has won this round. The BJP was counting on the Congress’s ideological dilemma and Pawar’s track record of bowling a “doosra” — a ball thrown in a sudden and opposite direction — to disrupt the talks. Some Left-Liberal sections were also against the pact. She, however, discussed the issue with disparate groups, and finally got everyone on board. The alliance, its proponents believe, will give a boost to the party cadre, maginalise the BJP and empower Congress workers in other states.

Party insiders point out that it was an important lesson for her son Rahul. Some claim that if he was at the helm of party affairs, the alliance would not have worked out and perhaps even resulted in a vertical split in the Maharashtra Congress legislature party.

There is not much of an ideological debate in the Congress over this for, contrary to popular belief, the party fancies itself as pro-Hindu. When party supremo Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she had wanted to accept an invitation to launch Vishva Hindu Parishad’s Ekatmata Yatra, a so-called unity campaign. Bureaucrat and author SS Gill says that post 1980, Indira lacked “social solicitude” towards Muslims. He writes in The Dynasty — A political biography of the premier ruling family of modern India (1996) that Indira loyalist CM Stephen had declared in 1983: “The wave-length of Hindu culture and the Congress culture is the same.” Barely six months before her assassination, Indira had sought to assure the majority community at a meeting that if there was “injustice to them or if they did not get their rights, then it would be dangerous to the integrity of the country”.

In 1989, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had launched his Lok Sabha campaign from the banks of the River Saryu in Ayodhya, promising Ram Rajya. Under Sonia, the Congress Working Committee had adopted a resolution on January 16, 1999, articulating the party’s definition of secularism. It read: “India is secular primarily because of Hindus, both as a philosophy and as a way of life based on what our ancients said, Ekam satyam, vipraha bahudha vadanti (The truth is one, the wise pursue it variously).”

At a theoretical level and historically, the grand old party has taken upon itself as a “duty” to lead the nation. Successive political resolutions crafted and drafted by in-house wordsmiths such as Dr Pattabhi Sitaramayya, PV Narasimha Rao and Pranab Mukherjee have insisted upon the Congress’s role in steering the nation. The idea was tweaked in 1998 when the party under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership officially opened doors for a coalition. Then, in July 2003, at a party conclave in Shimla, it worked out a seat-sharing formula with regional parties and accepted the role of a minor partner in coalition governments. The 14-point Shimla Sankalap (resolve) had called for a joint front of all secular forces against the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

The word “secular” stays in the CMP document of the Maharashtra government. But significantly, while the term is mentioned in the English document, the Hindi and Marathi versions do not refer to dharma-nirpekshta or panth-nirpekshta. So even if the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) regime headed by Thackeray sticks to the CMP, there are many contentious issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the Ayodhya Ram Temple issue that could spark differences among allies. It has to be seen that if the truth is indeed “one”, how exactly the wise hope to pursue it “variously”.

Rasheed Kidwai, a visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, is the author of 24 Akbar Road

Published on December 05, 2019
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