Will Maha Vikas Aghadi beat the odds to stop BJP juggernaut in 2024?

Will Maha Vikas Aghadi beat the odds to stop BJP juggernaut in 2024?

Shiv Sena (UBT), NCP and Congress have little in common ideologically

Setting aside their inherent contradictions, the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) constituents – Shiv Sena (UBT), NCP and Congress – have begun preparations for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. However, it would be quite a task for the three parties with different ideologies not only to stick together but also to give a united fight to the mighty BJP.

There are certain issues which may shake or even break the alliance that was built largely on the plank of fighting the BJP in Maharashtra. These issues crop up time and again, threatening the very existence of the MVA. The latest issue to have rocked the alliance is NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s support for the Adani Group, which is reeling under the aftermath of the Hindenburg Research report.

Also read: Pawar politics at play: Maratha strongman continues to stump one and all

NCP’s Pawar-play

Pawar’s support for business tycoon Gautam Adani has virtually come as a bolt from the blue for the grand old party. Adani is facing the heat for quite a while now as the Congress is relentlessly targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi for having close ties with him.

The Maratha satrap not only stated that the Hindenburg report ‘seems targeted’ but also questioned the Congress’ demand for a JPC probe into Adani row. He also expressed his disagreement with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s “Adani-Ambani” style of targeting big business houses while referring to the “Tata-Birla” narrative of the past. However, an unfazed Congress handled the issue wisely by merely stating that the NCP may have its view but 19 Opposition parties are convinced that the charges against the conglomerate are real and very serious.

The Shiv Sena too echoes the Congress’ views on the Adani issue as evident from a recent tweet of its Rajya Sabha MP Priyanka Chaturvedi stating, “Adani Group has been beneficiary of GoI largesse from mining norms tweaked, to airport acquisition allowed without prior experience, from ports & airports being taken immediately after central agency action. All made possible through a collusion & coalition with GoI.”

This is not the first time that the NCP has shared divergent views with its alliance partners. Just a few days back, talking about a controversy on the prime minister’s educational qualifications, senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar said people voted for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma and not his degree in 2014.

This was in stark contrast to the stand of Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray who had questioned Modi over his degree row. “What type of degree does he possess that he cannot show it to anyone? The college in which he studied should be proud of him, but why can’t that college show that proud feeling,” asked Thackeray.

This is not all. People haven’t forgotten the midnight coup, which shook the entire nation, when BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis and NCP’s Ajit Pawar took oath and formed the government on November 23, 2019, which lasted for nearly 80 hours and collapsed after Ajit Pawar resigned. A few months back, Fadnavis even claimed that the move had Sharad Pawar’s backing, though the latter rejected the charge.

Also read: Pawar first Opposition leader to back Adani, says Hindenburg ‘targeted’ conglomerate

The Savarkar row

Another contentious issue is that of Hindutva ideologue and controversial freedom fighter Vinayak Damodar Savarkar whom the Shiv Sena adores and the Congress abhors. 

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi stirred up a hornet’s nest during his press conference on March 25 when he was asked whether he would apologise for his “Modi surname” remarks at a 2019 rally. He shot back saying, “My name is not Savarkar. It is Gandhi and Gandhi never offers apology.” A day later, Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray publicly warned Rahul against humiliating Savarkar, stating that it would create fissures in the alliance. NCP chief Sharad Pawar had to finally step in to broker peace between the two parties, after which Rahul agreed to tone down his offensive on the BJP over Savarkar issue.

However, the damage was already done, as the ruling BJP lapped up the opportunity to create a wedge between the Shiv Sena and its non-Hindutva allies in the MVA while also questioning Thackeray’s commitment to Hindutva. The BJP and the Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena are now out to exploit the issue to the hilt through Savarkar Gourav Yatra across the state, highlighting how the Congress insulted the icon of Hindutva.

The controversy underlines the fact that the Congress, particularly its central leadership, will have to do a tight ropewalk to ensure that the MVA remains intact. Rahul had raised the Savarkar issue earlier too when his Bharat Jodo Yatra passed through Maharashtra, claiming that the Hindutva ideologue called himself an “obedient servant of the British” in his mercy petition. At that time Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut had warned that the issue may split the MVA.

Rahul’s repeated attacks on Savarkar have not gone down will even among a section of Maharashtra Congress leaders who felt that attacking Savarkar doesn’t make a difference to the BJP and the party will only end up damaging itself by questioning his patriotism. Their concerns hold great significance in light of the fact that the MVA has got some really good results in the last few months. The alliance not only won 2 out of 5 seats but also defeated the BJP in Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s home turf Nagpur in the recent Maharashtra Legislative Council elections. Subsequently, the MVA wrested Kasba Peth assembly segment from the BJP in a bypoll after 28 years.

Also read: Savarkar row: Congress to tone down attack after Pawar’s intervention

The Hindutva factor

The pro-Hindutva stance of the Shiv Sena (UBT) often causes discomfort among the other two MVA allies – the Congress and the NCP. Uddhav’s father Balasaheb Thackeray had earned the sobriquet of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ in 1990s when he adopted the Hindutva agenda to expand the Sena’s footprints beyond Mumbai. Moreover, it was the ideology of the Hindutva that formed the foundation of the once formidable Shiv Sena-BJP alliance.

This was one of the key reasons that the MVA troika released their common minimum programme (CMP) before forming their government in Maharashtra in 2019. In one of its most salient features, the CMP stated that the three parties would uphold the secular values enshrined in the Constitution. The very first line of the CMP had the word “secular” and the first paragraph talked about upholding secularism. Secularism has been used twice in the first paragraph itself. There were also reports that the Shiv Sena had wanted the word secular to be dropped from the CMP.

Interestingly, the forging of MVA alliance has helped the Shiv Sena (UBT) increase its support base among the Muslims over the last few years. This was evident during a recent Sena rally in Malegaon, having a large population of Muslims, where people in large numbers turned up to listen to Uddhav Thackeray.

Anti-BJP politics

Talking to The Federal, political analyst Abhay Deshpande said all these issues won’t affect the MVA in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections as its core agenda is the “anti-BJP politics”. He opined that the MVA is more of a seat sharing arrangement rather than an alliance formed on ideological alignment. He said the NCP has time and again flirted with the BJP, but never crossed over to forge an alliance with it.

“Sharad Pawar had done something similar at the time of Rafale row before 2019 Lok Sabha elections, saying people may not doubt PM Modi’s personal integrity in the fighter jet deal. He also had a meeting with Modi in the Parliament Complex, but never joined hands with the BJP,” he said. According to him, Pawar is well aware of the fact that the BJP won’t give him as much prominence as he gets in the MVA and it is an open secret that the NCP was calling the shots in the previous MVA government.

Also read: Won’t tolerate Savarkar’s insult; work to save democracy: Uddhav tells Rahul

Seat sharing riddle

In a test of cohesion, the MVA will first have to amicably reach a seat sharing formula for 2024 general elections. It won’t be easy for the MVA troika to ensure smooth distribution of seats, as there would be more than one claimant in many constituencies. For instance, both Sena and Congress will stake a claim on South Central Mumbai Lok Sabha seat, while all three MVA constituents may want to contest from Shirdi. In Marathwada too, NCP and Sena will compete for seats. It may well lead to a situation where every official candidate of MVA will have to face two rebel candidates.

Meanwhile, there are reports that the alliance would let Shiv Sena (UBT) contest more number of seats as compared to the other two partners. Sources said the Sena may get 20 seats out of the total 48. The remaining 28 sets may be equally divided between the NCP and the Congress.

Political observers said the strategy of giving more seats to the Uddhav faction of Shiv Sena will mount pressure on the BJP to allot more seats to the rival Shinde camp of Shiv Sena, which will work to the advantage of MVA. The move will also put the BJP in a spot as the party isn’t willing to concede ground to the Shinde faction and seems keen on contesting a majority of seats. This became evident when state BJP chief Chandrashekhar Bawankule recently said that the BJP will contest 240 out of 288 seats in the assembly elections next year, hinting that the BJP will dominate the alliance.

The BJP had won 23 seats out of 25 in the pre-poll alliance with undivided Shiv Sena in 2019. It would expect to further increase its seat share in an alliance with Eknath Shinde whose Sena faction lacks the organisational strength. Moreover, the BJP would press for contesting more seats with an aim to cash in on “Brand Modi”.

Incidentally, the BJP unit of Maharashtra has sent a proposal to the party’s central leadership to advance the state assembly elections from October 2024 to coincide with the Lok Sabha elections in April-May next year. The BJP hopes to gain in the simultaneous elections, as they think Modi’s appeal and national issues will weigh on voters’ minds. At the same time, the move may widen the rift and add to the confusion in the MVA.

Also read: Will ensure MVA contests Maha assembly and Lok Sabha polls together: Sharad Pawar

Face of alliance

Though there is still a year to go for the Lok Sabha elections, Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray seems to be emerging as the face of the MVA in Maharashtra notwithstanding the split in his party. A critical factor working to his advantage is the fact that despite losing 40 MLAs and 12 MPs his party’s organisational base is largely intact. The special treatment extended to Thackeray during the MVA’s first joint rally at Sambhajinagar on April 2 further fuelled speculation. A special chair was placed at the dais for the former chief minister.

However, the Congress and the NCP are evasive on the issue and said nothing much should be read into it.  Senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan said, “We are all equal. We will go without any pre-determined leader. What is important is to defeat the current government…There is no question why the Congress should feel that it is a junior partner or less important partner of the alliance. We are equal partners.”

Deshpande said the MVA would most likely go with Thackeray as there is a sense of sympathy towards him among the people in the aftermath of Eknath Shinde’s rebellion and the Sena’s split.

Also read: Jolt to Maharashtra Congress as CLP leader Balasaheb Thorat resigns

Firefighting within

The MVA constituents don’t have to merely stick together, as they are also facing infighting in their respective outfits. While Shiv Sena (UBT) is already coming to terms with the vertical split in the party and struggling to keep its flock together, there has been a lot of internal bickering in the Congress too. Just a couple of months back, Maharashtra Congress legislative party leader Balasaheb Thorat had resigned from his post, accusing state Congress chief Nana Patole of conspiring against him.

Similarly, the rival Eknath Shinde camp of the Shiv Sena is trying to break away more Thackeray loyalists ahead of the general elections next year. They succeeded in wooing Bhushan Desai, son of Thackeray’s close aide Subhash Desai, to join their party last month.

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