A tryst with destiny?

It has to be a significant moment in Indian history that, for the first time in the nearly five decades of the Shiv Sena’s existence, Bal Thackeray has been so publicly endorsed by the Congress as one of its own.

Of course, Pranab Mukherjee’s courtesy call on Thackeray was just to thank him for his support at the presidential election slated for next week. But he may not have been non-conversant with the fact that the Shiv Sena actually belongs to the Congress and, though much water might have flowed under the bridge between the party’s foundation in the 1960s to the second decade of the 21st century, it still remains a fact that the Congress and the Shiv Sena have been better and more comfortable allies than the Sena and the BJP and have together achieved more in bringing about a lasting change in the socio-political fabric of Maharashtra than the BJP ever did in alliance with Bal Thackeray.

This is a visit that Thackeray will cherish forever – whether or not he succeeds in influencing Mukherjee’s mind vis-a-vis returning Belgaum, a disputed territory in Karnataka, to Maharashtra (he recently called for `hanging’ the BJP government in that state) or even, if after becoming President, Mukherjee forgets to call Thackeray on his birthday as Pratibha Patil did not and Atal Behari Vajpayee and L K Advani always failed to remember.

This is the second time that Thackeray is openly endorsing a UPA candidate for president and that is a measure of his conviction that neither he nor the BJP is coming to power at the next elections, so he needs to get the Congress on his side, any which way and as soon as possible. Thackeray has never done anything for anyone without a quid pro quo and now, as in 2007, his demand is primarily a single point one: that he and his party should be protected at all cost against Narayan Rane, who had split from the Sena seven years ago amid much acrimony and bad blood and hopes to become chief minister. Thackeray wants the Congress to promise they will never give Rane the top job in the state.

The Sena tiger fears that with the state in Rane’s hands, the latter will leave no stone unturned in demolishing his party. He is particularly worried about his son, Uddhav, who is rather a bit of a gentleman and might not be able to match Rane’s tactics measure for measure.

The Congress, I am told, has been only too happy to give him that assurance but this is clearly not the first (or second) time that they have done business together. The Sena’s entire history, in fact, is replete with instances of quid pro quo between Thackeray and the Congress – starting with the decimation of Communist party-led trade unions in the 1960s which the Congress had been unable to overcome and so used Sena goons to break their back. Thackeray was also, perhaps, the only leader of an opposition party who supported Mrs Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency in 1975 and was handsomely rewarded for that by Congress leaders in the state with nominations to various institutional and legislative bodies, thus giving the party a foothold in the democratic process that eventually led them to government in 1995, albeit in alliance with the BJP.

Left to Thackeray, he would prefer a “wholly-owned’’ Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra with a Congress government at the Centre. But he has to unfortunately keep up his alliance with the BJP to keep winning seats on the saffron ticket. For, while the Congress might do much for Thackeray, they will never concede such a “big’’ (read money-spinning) state like Maharashtra to any other party. But apart from that, for years now, they have been content to let the Shiv Sena win the Municipal elections in the cash-rich Bombay and neighbouring Thane corporations, adequately compensating that party for what they might have lost by being out of government in Maharashtra.

Barring a brief period in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Congress itself was floundering over its policies with regard to minorities and rising saffronism in the country, I have always known the two parties to work in tandem to the advantage of each others’ interests. And I see that, with the BJP now itself rather directionless, they seem to be slipping back into their old arrangement and ways.

I believe the Sena, after its grand failure in government between 1995-1999, when it created more problems for itself and the state than it could handle, has come to terms with its inability to be a party of good governance. They are content with winning just the municipal corporations and staying relevant to the limited extent of keeping their heads above water so that they continue to carry a certain amount of nuisance value – in enough proportion to drive the kind of bargain with the ruling party as they are said to have done now by blocking Rane’s attempts to become chief minister of Maharashtra.

Thackeray, however, has never made any bones about his friends or enemies. It is the Congress which has always been squeamish about acknowledging their relationship with the Shiv Sena. So Mukherjee’s late Friday night visit to Matoshree, Thackeray’s residence, even if only framed in terms of a gracious movee to thank him for his support, has an underlying significance: today the Sena, in an existentialist crisis, needs the Congress more than the Congress had needed the Sena over the years. The Congress has always surreptitiously bailed the Sena out in its most difficult moments and revived the party each time it seemed to be on the brink of decimation. But it is now no longer pretending that, given its Gandhian origins, it has any qualms about teaming up with a party of goons and guns which is what the Sena has essentially been over at least the last three decades.

So, I look upon the Thackeray-Mukherjee meet as a watershed moment of sorts in Indian politics. Once again, together, the Sena and the Congress are all set to alter the socio-political fabric of the country. And, despite the inherent contradictions in their DNA, both will survive, with a lot of interdependence upon each other — even if that could be less overt than the Sena’s vote for Mukherjee in the presidential race next week. No revival might be on the cards for the Shiv Sena but it is the BJP which should now worry about its own future. For, clearly, these two old friends are now scripting a destiny where the BJP might find it is three too many in the electoral sweepstakes at the next Lok Sabha elections.

With Mukherjee’s welcome at Thackeray’s residence, both the Congress and the Shiv Sena seem to have truly come home. I guess the two parties were always destined to be back in each other’s arms, sooner or later!

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