A saffron triumph

Print edition : March 02, 2002

The strained relationship between the Congress(I) and the NCP turns out to be a boon for the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra.

NOTHING in the lexicon of normal politics can explain the unhappy relationship between the Congress(I) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Maharashtra. It more closely resembles a murderous family feud or underworld vendetta than a mere association between two parties.

Two years ago, NCP president Sharad Pawar accused Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi of being essentially a foreigner, broke away from the party, and then led his own party to near-doom in the 1999 Maharashtra Assembly elections. Pawar then exulted in having proven to the Congress(I) that it needed him to hold Maharashtra. At the first available opportunity, the Congress(I) returned the compliment. In the February polls to nine municipal corporations, the Congress(I) refused to ally with the NCP, ensuring Pawar's decimation - but also its own defeat. The Congress(I) now exults in having proven that Pawar is nothing without the party that he broke. Neither party has forgotten the past, but neither has learned from it either.

For politicians of the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance, the simmering feud within the Congress(I) must seem like divine providence. Despite having been discredited by the exposure of massive corruption in the Shiv Sena-controlled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the alliance managed to take 144 out of 227 seats. The Congress got just 60, up 12 from its previous representation, and the NCP a mere 11. Had the NCP and the Congress fought on a united platform, things would most certainly have been very different. The sum total of their votes in 39 seats was greater than that of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. Translated into seats, this would have meant that the Congress-NCP would have been just two seats short of a majority while the Shiv Sena-BJP would have been nowhere near one.

Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray. In the run-up to the polls he renewed his use of the venomous communal rhetoric that he had largely abandoned after his arrest in 2000.-VIVEK BENDRE

In neighbouring Thane, which like Mumbai has long been a stronghold of the Hindu Right, the situation might have been similar. Here, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was able to win 63 of a total of 116 seats, leaving just 13 to the Congress and 25 to the NCP. This was despite the fact that the Shiv Sena faced internal rebellion from figures that were allied to its leader Anand Dighe, who died following an accident last year. A united Congress-NCP, going by the sum total of their votes, would have won a clear majority of 67 seats. Indeed, in 29 seats, the Shiv Sena-BJP candidates won with majorities that were between just four and 200 votes. The stories are not very dissimilar in the traditional Congress-held municipality of Nashik, where the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance managed to take 59 of 108 seats. Here the NCP turned the tables on the Congress, winning 23 seats to the Congress' 17, but ensuring the defeat of both parties in the process.

About the only places where the Congress and the NCP managed to do well were where the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was divided, or where local alliances were crucial. The NCP managed to score a decisive victory in Ulhasnagar because of its alliance with Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act-accused Suresh "Pappu" Kalani, whom many hold responsible for the criminalisation of the town. Here, the NCP managed to get 42 out of 76 seats, while the Congress picked up another 10. In Nagpur, where the saffron alliance stood divided, the Shiv Sena won three seats and the BJP won 52, to the NCP's 12 and the Congress' 50. In Pimpari-Chinchwad, Pawar's pocketborough, Pawar also saw the Hindu Right being defeated, although, to his mortification, the Congress(I) managed to get almost as many seats as the NCP.

Nobody is in any doubt about just how this fiasco came about. Says Deputy Chief Minister and NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal: "I had been crying myself hoarse about the need for an alliance for the last two months. Unfortunately, no one took my appeals seriously. I received support only from Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and the Mumbai Congress chief Murli Deora." Bhujbal blames the Congress' State president Govindrao Adik, vice-president Gurudas Kamat and Member of Parliament Sunil Dutt for the failure to arrive at a pre-election understanding. Privately, several senior Congress figures agree with this. Asked by one newspaper if the Congress defeat was the result of its failure to ally with the NCP, all that Deora would say was that they were "analysing the results".

Others in the Congress(I), however, have been more vociferous in defending their decision. "Bhujbal has been consistently attacking our leader Sonia Gandhi," Kamat said. "How could we have accepted her humiliation?" But it is hard to miss the element of personal pique that underpins the anti-NCP postures of some people in the Congress. During the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, held along with the Assembly elections, Gurudas Kamat had lost the North-East Mumbai Lok Sabha seat to the BJP's Kirit Somaiya. Kamat believed, and rightly, that had the NCP not fought against him, he would have had a fair chance of a win. Sunil Dutt, similarly, has not forgiven Pawar for his failure to help his son, filmstar Sanjay Dutt, when he was incarcerated on terrorism charges. Adik, for his part, has railed against Vilasrao Deshmukh's supposedly 'soft' position on the NCP from the formation of the alliance government.

Pawar's repeated attacks on Sonia Gandhi are not, however, the sole reason for the friction that exists between the two parties. The NCP's ambition of emerging as a viable regional party has, almost inevitably, led it into confrontation with the Congress. On February 1, for example, Vilasrao Deshmukh had taken pot-shots at his deputy Bhujbal, claiming that he had violated his oath of secrecy. The Chief Minister also criticised the NCP for its Ministers' handling of the Energy and Finance portfolios, saying that the party "wanted 50 per cent of the power, but not half the responsibility". This criticism followed Bhujbal's assertion that Deshmukh had backed down on commitments to support a ban on the Students' Islamic Movement of India, and to back the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance. Congress leaders had then described Bhujbal as "anti-Muslim", a somewhat frivolous charge given that he was the key figure responsible for Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray's arrest in June 2000.

But if both parties intend to stay in power, and keep the Hindu Right out, they clearly need to arrive at some kind of a working relationship. At the moment, neither of them seem to have a clear understanding of just how to go about arriving at one. The voter turnout in Mumbai, the lowest in three successive municipal elections, also suggests that the Congress and the NCP have failed to forge a popular agenda, thus leaving the arena open to the Hindu Right. The NCP's manifesto, for example, was full of promises not to the poor who make up the overwhelming bulk of the city's population but to the middle class. These included the scrapping of octroi duties and the creation of pay wards in municipal hospitals. The Congress' right-wing economic policies, which include programmes to make it easier for industrialists to retrench workers, have also done little to endear the party to Mumbai's working class and urban poor.

If relations between the Congress and the NCP continue to fray, Maharashtra's political future does not look pleasant. For one, the scent of victory on the campaign trail emboldened Thackeray to renew his use of the venomous communal rhetoric that he had largely abandoned after his arrest in 2000. At a February 7 rally, for example, he complained that "the Congress is responsible for the increase in numbers of Muslims of this country. Congress leaders twirled the beards of Muslims and let them rule this country and reduce the opportunities of the sons of the soil. When I talk about this, I am branded a fundamentalist". Elements of his speech were reminiscent of the kind of language he had used just before the pogrom in Mumbai of 1992-1993. "The green poison," he said, referring to Muslims, "should be weeded out of this country. Give the Bangladeshi Muslims 48 hours to leave the country. They are in India physically, but in spirit they are in Pakistan."

Election Commission officials and police officers might not be listening to the inflammatory rhetoric, but Shiv Sena cadres are. Within the organisation, the municipal elections are being seen as an opportunity to bring its core communal platform to the foreground, taking advantage of the dissension within secular parties. The elections have also seen the Shiv Sena acquire an undisputed second-rung leadership, in the form of Thackeray's son, Uddhav Thackeray. Shortly before the elections, his cousin Raj Thackeray had complained of not being consulted on party decisions. Raj Thackeray subsequently refused to campaign in Mumbai, a decision that led to some fears of vote erosion in the Shiv Sena. The election results, however, suggest that Uddhav Thackeray commands the respect of the party's organisational apparatus.

Just how things are shaping up in rural Maharashtra, meanwhile, will become clear when the results of the 308 panchayat samitis and 27 zilla parishads held on February 17 become available. In the last round of polling in these multi-phase local body elections, the Congress(I) performed miserably. Vilasrao Deshmukh had to suffer the humiliation of seeing his nominee for the head of the Latur Municipal Council defeated by his alliance partner, the NCP. The Congress(I) also fared miserably in the key regions of Konkan, Vidarbha and Khandesh. More disturbing, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, although dented by the NCP in some areas, managed to increase its share of votes. Further gains by the Hindu Right are possible, since neither the NCP nor the Congress(I) seem to have made any local-level efforts to contain the damage since the December debacle.

While the Congress has real problems in coming to terms with Pawar, it desperately needs to find a way out of the destructive impasse that now exists. Any gains that the party makes in Punjab or Uttar Pradesh could be undone by the collapse of its alliance government in Maharashtra. A revival of Hindu chauvinist forces in Maharashtra, similarly, would also have enormous effects on the already eroded morale of their cadre across the country. Although electoral arithmetic makes it unlikely that the Maharashtra government will fall any time soon - neither alliance partner can retain power without the other - the status quo makes a renewed saffron tide probable. The terms for a functional relationship with the NCP might well depend on both parties engaging in a meaningful dialogue on the sharing of power. At the moment, however, neither party appears to be willing to ask the necessary question.

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