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As Shiv Sena looks beyond Maharashtra, it moves closer to Congress

On Wednesday, after his meeting with Priyanka Gandhi, Raut said both parties are considering working together for the Uttar Pradesh and Goa elections. He did not spell out any details.

Written by Vishwas Waghmode | Mumbai |
Updated: December 9, 2021 8:58:50 pm
Shiv Sena's Sanjay Raut met Rahul Gandhi in Delhi recently.

Two back-to-back meetings by Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut in Delhi over the last two days — first with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and later with his sister and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi – have fuelled speculation about the Sena’s national aspirations given its growing proximity with the national party.

On Wednesday, after his meeting with Priyanka Gandhi, Raut said both parties are considering working together for the Uttar Pradesh and Goa elections. He did not spell out any details.

“No party can defeat BJP without Hindutva and nationalism. And the Sena can be a good counter to the BJP,” said the functionary, adding that an alliance would help both the parties.

Raut’s meetings in Delhi took place in the shadow of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s statements during her visit to Mumbai last week, when she declared the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) dead. She had also taken a swipe at Rahul Gandhi’s frequent absence from the country.

In response, Raut, widely considered the voice of Sena leader and Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, wrote a strong piece in the Saamna, the Shiv Sena daily of which he is editor, about the necessity of the UPA and the Congress, calling it the only Opposition party with a national presence. This was in many ways a more determined pushback against the TMC leader’s apparent belittling of the Congress and Rahul Gandhi, than even the Congress had put up.

The Sena — Raut particularly – is close to the NCP, whose leader Sharad Pawar too has in the past hinted that he has little respect for Rahul. Given these dynamics, the immediate priority for the Sena is to keep the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) ruling coalition together as it embarks on its third year.

But the coalition is not without tensions, and the Sena has worked hard to keep the Congress in the fold, particularly as it is believed that Gandhi had only reluctantly agreed to the Congress joining the MVA government. Raut’s meetings in Delhi this week were part of a concerted move by the Sena to improve its ties with Congress.

After Thackeray took oath as CM, in February 2020, he paid a courtesy visit to Congress president Sonia Gandhi along with his son and Tourism Minister Aaditya Thackeray and Raut. Aaditya had separately met Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in January and August 2020.

Uddhav also attended the two meetings — held in May and August 2020 — of Opposition parties at the national level convened by Congress president Sonia Gandhi. During the August meeting, Uddhav had said that all power in the country was getting concentrated in one hand and stressed the need to protect the federal structure and the Constitution.

At least on two occasions, Raut invited Rahul Gandhi to Maharashtra to meet CM Uddhav Thackeray. In Saamna, Raut has defended and spoken in favour of Rahul Gandhi, his leadership and the Congress on multiple occasions.

His reassertion of this after Banerjee’s remarks has given the Congress stronger optics within the MVA coalition, in which they have often complained of being sidelined — MPCC chief Nana Patole, known to be close to Rahul, recently called Sharad Pawar the “remote control” of the MVA government.

“It (the Congress-Sena bonhomie) is good for the MVA government as the frequent meetings will ensure better coordination among the top leadership of the three parties,” said a Sena leader.

Also, the Sena, which appears to believe that it has the potential to grow beyond Maharashtra, has made no secret of its national ambitions. During the party’s foundation day in 2020, Thackeray said he would be happy if a Shiv Sainik became Prime Minister one day, in response to Raut’s entreaty that “you are leading the state strongly as chief minister. Now you should lead the nation”.

Moreover, the party’s confidence in its ability to stitch up deals outside Maharashtra has increased after it won the bypoll for the Dadra and Nagar Haveli Lok Sabha seat last month. It was the party’s first electoral victory outside Maharashtra, one that it snatched from the BJP.

Sources in the Sena said the win has motivated the party to focus on expanding its footprint in other states.

It is for this that the Sena sees merit in tying up with the Congress. The party has in the past contested Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Goa, without scoring a single seat. Raut’s discussions with Priyanka for tying up in UP and Goa in the upcoming Assembly elections are significant in this respect.

“Attempts are being made to form a strong alternative to the UPA, but without the Congress, it is not possible to defeat the BJP. Congress has a presence in many states even today and that can’t be ignored while forming a strong Opposition front. The parties may have issues with the Congress leadership and who will lead the Opposition front but a middle path can be chalked out,” said a Sena leader.

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