As the Congress moves towards sealing an alliance with the Shiv Sena, talks to it about a possible power-sharing arrangement in Maharashtra, along with Sharad Pawar’s NCP, it is a significant moment in its career which sends out consequential signals. Regardless of its own several compromises with the principle and practice of secularism, notwithstanding its many flirtations even with the Sena in different forms and levels in the past, an alliance with the Sena to rule Maharashtra now would be the Congress’s first major coalition with an openly saffron force. And the Sena is not just another party. Down the years, its politics has constructed the “Other” in belligerent ways, always picking on the vulnerable, the migrant now and then the minority. It has stood for a brand of politics that combines chauvinism, bigotry and intolerance with vigilantism and violence. By thinking of allying with the Sena, the Congress signals a willingness to be counted in the same frame with a political force it has, as a self-professedly inclusive party, defined itself in opposition to — after an electoral verdict, moreover, which relegated it to fourth place, and one, therefore, that scarcely gives it a mandate to rule.
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Of course, the Congress might rationalise this moment by pointing to those same depleting numbers, and the realpolitik compulsion to keep the BJP out of power in a state that is home to the financial capital of the country. A government in Maharashtra in which the Congress participates with the Sena would not only twist the knife deeper between the Sena and BJP, but arguably also make an important dent in the BJP’s winning streak. At the same time, it would hold out the promise of spoils of power for its own demoralised workers. Yet, the Congress needs to weigh the costs of cosying with an outfit that has treaded a thin, grey edge in a polity governed by an inclusive constitution and the rule of law ever since it made attacks on South Indians and Communist cadres its calling card in the 1960s and ’70s. Since then, it has been cited and indicted for its instigation of, and involvement in, communal violence by impartial probes, most notably in the conflagration that consumed hundreds of lives in December 1992-January 1993, its role in which was recorded by the Srikrishna Commission report. The Shiv Sena owned up to its role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. It has been known to dig up the cricket pitch to prevent the Pakistani team from playing in Mumbai. It has aggressively and brutishly targeted the media when it has been criticised, and shown no compunction in violently turning on its own, in case of disagreement or dissent.
It is no secret that the Congress is beset with a grave crisis in a BJP-dominated polity, in which it is called upon to redefine what it stands for. At a time like this, an alliance with the Shiv Sena, no matter what the common minimum programme may be, raises serious questions for political stability and governance in Maharashtra. It will also resonate beyond in other states where elections are due.