Analysis | Maharashtra Cong. chief Patole’s jibes at allies put question mark over MVA alliance ahead of civic polls 

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The Maharashtra Pradesh Congree Committee chief has hit out at ally Shiv Sena’s ‘opportunism’ while calling out the Nationalist Congress Party’s ‘consistent betrayal’ at the Udaipur ‘Chintan Shivir’

The Maharashtra Pradesh Congree Committee chief has hit out at ally Shiv Sena’s ‘opportunism’ while calling out the Nationalist Congress Party’s ‘consistent betrayal’ at the Udaipur ‘Chintan Shivir’

Maharashtra Congress chief Nana Patole’s renewed verbal assault against his Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition allies, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena, has put a question mark on the three parties contesting the critical Maharashtra civic polls together.

Mr. Patole stirred the pot of controversy soon after the Congress’s Chintan Shivir at Udaipur where, by his own admission, he submitted a litany of complaints to the party high command pertaining to the NCP’s consistent ‘betrayal’ of the Congress and its alleged efforts to undermine the party in Maharashtra.

The Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Chief (MPCC) chief then sternly rebuked Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena for drawing up the three-ward system for the upcoming civic polls without allegedly consulting the Congress. Without directly naming either party, Mr. Patole censured the ‘opportunism’ of both the Sena and the Sharad Pawar-led NCP by hinting that the three-ward arrangement was calculatedly designed to benefit these parties in the high-stakes Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) election.

Excepting the State’s Vidarbha region and in Kolhapur district, where it has a strong presence, the Congress faces an existential crisis in Maharashtra, particularly in Mumbai and Pune.

According to analysts, the party needs to expand its presence in the civic bodies of the cash-rich municipal corporations of Mumbai, Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad if it has to rebuild its moribund organisational structures and regain lost ground in Maharashtra.

“The Congress has lost its grip on Pune since Suresh Kalmadi’s drift into political oblivion. It is unlikely to have much scope for expansion in Pune or Mumbai if it contests the civic polls in alliance with the NCP and the Sena as both would be unwilling to share too many seats with them. The question is whether Mr. Patole will break away from the MVA given that the chances of the Congress winning in a three-ward system are extremely slim,” observes city-based political analyst Rajendra Pandharpure.  

This is not the first time that Mr. Patole, with his blunt talk, has stirred discord within the tripartite MVA coalition led by Mr. Thackeray. Last year, he issued a ‘Congress will go it alone’ refrain for future polls, triggering unease in the MVA besides giving headaches to senior leaders within his party like Balasaheb Thorat and Ashok Chavan, who eagerly sought to placate Mr. Sharad Pawar, considered the ‘architect’ of this unlikely coalition.

In July last year, while addressing party workers at Lonavla in Pune, Mr. Patole had even hinted that his movements were being closely monitored by Mr. Thackeray and Ajit Pawar, Deputy Chief Minister as well as Pune’s Guardian Minister, who he rebuked for ignoring the interests of Congress workers and party-bearers in the district.

‘Maharashtra’s Sidhu’

Since then, NCP leaders from Mr. Sharad Pawar downwards have tended to disparage Mr. Patole as a ‘loose cannon’ who is not to be taken seriously, with some sections within the NCP even mocking the MPCC chief as ‘Maharashtra’s Sidhu.’

Be that as may, but the NCP’s covert dalliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recently concluded Bhandara-Gondia Zilla Parishad election has brought the long-festering resentment and suspicion of the Congress rank-and-file towards their NCP counterparts into sharp relief.

The trust deficit between the ideologically aligned Congress and Mr. Sharad Pawar’s NCP has steadily widened after the clandestine understanding between the NCP and the BJP before the 2014 general elections that had resulted in the crumbling of the hitherto unbroken polar alliances in Maharashtra, the Sena–BJP (since 1989) and the Congress-NCP (since 1999) and led to all four parties contesting separately. 

After the 2014 Assembly poll results, the NCP, weighed down under a cloud of corruption, had eagerly offered unsolicited outside support to the then minority BJP government while its traditional ally, the Sena, vacillated on whether or not to form the government with the former. Even after the BJP eventually formed the government with the Sena, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the late Arun Jaitley had paid ‘diplomatic visits’ to the Pawar stronghold of Baramati when relations between the BJP and the Sena were getting increasingly fraught.

Political equations in the State changed yet again after the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly election, when the Sena finally broke off with the BJP over the Chief Minister post. Sensing an opportunity, Mr. Sharad Pawar cannily stitched together the ideologically opposed MVA of the Sena, the NCP and the Congress based on a common minimum programme and with the stated aim of stopping the BJP.

Yet, despite Mr. Sharad Pawar being targeted by right-wing trolls, the BJP and the MNS, this did not stop the NCP from making a covert deal with the BJP in the Bhandara-Gondia Zilla Parishad election.

“Given that the BJP and the Sena have now become mortal enemies, the NCP has recognised that it is advantageous to go with the Sena while the latter, in their eagerness to lick the BJP, will ally with the NCP come what may. In the elections to the graduate and teachers’ constituencies, Sena workers were seen actively campaigning for the NCP,” says Mr. Pandharpure.

NCP-Sena workers’ camaraderie

If local trends show evidence of camaraderie, however opportunistic, between the NCP and Sena workers, the same cannot be said for relations between the Sena and the Congress.

“Ideological differences between the Sena and the Congress run deep enough for animus to persist between the cadres of both parties, despite the fact they are in an alliance now. The fact that the NCP has taken the plum portfolios and the Sena has a CM has only compounded the resentment among the Congress activists. Mr. Patole is merely articulating these,” says another analyst.

The Kolhapur North Assembly by-poll last month saw the Congress wrench the seat from the Sena despite the latter’s claims on it. Much to the Sena’s chagrin, the Congress candidate then defeated the BJP candidate by a record margin.

Cong. alleges scam in BMC

Last week, in a direct challenge to the Shiv Sena, the Congress alleged that there was a scam to the tune of ₹9,380 crore brewing in the Sena-controlled BMC in the construction of 14,000 housing units for project-affected people.

The allegations chime in with Mr. Patole’s - and Mumbai Congress president Bhai Jagtap’s – calls for the party to contest independently of the Sena and the NCP.

Despite Sena leader Sanjay Raut’s lavish praise on Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Vadra in the wake of the Lakhimpur Kheri violence (prior to the Uttar Pradesh election), a recent editorial in the Sena mouthpiece Saamna editorial criticised the Udaipur conclave and took aim at Mr. Gandhi for leaving leadership issues unresolved while ticking off the Congress over recent departures of its high-profile leaders.

This has not gone down well with Mr. Patole, who retorted by the saying the Sena, instead worrying about arrivals or departures from the Congress, ought to focus on burning issues like unemployment and price rise.

With the BJP - through ‘auxiliaries’ like the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and the Rana couple – is heating up Maharashtra’s political clime by taking the Sena over its ‘weak Hindutva’ and targeting the NCP for playing caste politics, the Congress has kept a conspicuous distance, staging protests on the ratcheting price rise instead.

“The Congress’ focus is on getting back its core voters, particularly those who had shifted to the BJP since Modi’s ascendancy in 2014 and now may have been disillusioned by ratcheting prices and unemployment. Mr. Patole, by showing the NCP as ‘duplicitous’ and the Sena as ‘opportunist’, senses that the situation is ripe for the Congress to take advantage of,” opines Mr. Pandharpure.

Yet, post-Udaipur, the party continues to be severely hamstrung by uninspiring and often inept leadership at the national and regional levels.

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Patole, as State Congress chief, fields youthful faces for the civic polls – the litmus test for the Congress which will decide the party’s course for the 2024 Maharashtra Assembly election.

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