There is a fable about a venomous serpent which often bit people and sucked their lives out through its poison. Counselled by a sage, the repentant snake decided to renounce its violent ways. Days later, when the revered master was passing by the same route, he saw the reptile lying in a piteous state by the roadside. The grievously injured snake complained that since it had stopped biting people, they overcame their fear and pelted it with stones. Alas, said the sage, along with biting, you also gave up hissing.
The letter by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to Maharashtra chief minister and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray indicates that the party seems to have taken a leaf out of that snake’s book by deciding to hiss and underline its nuisance value.
In the letter, Sonia has sought that the Maharashtra government, of which it is a constituent, introduce quotas for scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (ST) in government contracts and projects. The letter also underlines that “the policies and programmes for the welfare of the Dalits and Adivasis in Maharashtra is a very important commitment made in the Common Minimum Programme of the Maha Vikas Aghadi”.
There is growing resentment in the Congress that while Uddhav is the face of the government along with Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) supremo Sharad Pawar, who is seen as the architect of the alliance, the Congress has been left out in the cold. Congressmen rue that the party has not been given due credit for the decisions of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) regime.
Though the Congress has most of its mass base in the Dalits, tribals and minorities, the NCP is working systematically to poach this flock and tap into the rising disenchantment in these sections against the rise of political Hindutva. Though some aged Adivasis in districts like Nandurbar still wistfully speak about the late Indira Gandhi, the Grand Old Party, which is a pale shadow of its former self, has ceded its support among tribals to the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Highlighting the predicament of the Congress as it strikes a balance between the sentiments of the majority, and its core minority vote-base, it has to contend with the presence of players like the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM). The NCP is also trying to wean away the Dalits, especially the Buddhist Dalits, into its fold.
As the state grapples with a resource crunch, Congress legislators and ministers complain that the finance department, held by the NCP’s deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, is tight-fisted when it comes to funds for their departments and constituencies. This led to Congressman Nitin Raut, the state energy minister and ambitious Dalit leader from Vidarbha, being forced to renege on his promise of providing relief to consumers saddled with steep bills from the state electricity distribution utility.
NCP’s Dhananjay Munde holds the social justice portfolio. The NCP often gets the credit for schemes run by the department for Dalits and weaker sections. The Congress is also wary about getting a raw deal in the distribution of positions in state-run corporations, with fears that the Shiv Sena and NCP, with their new-found bonhomie in power, may walk off with the choicest cuts.
However, what has set the alarm bells ringing in the Congress were reports that NCP supremo Sharad Pawar would be elevated as the chairman of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) replacing the Congress president. Though this speculation was denied by Pawar himself, this, coupled with Pawar’s takedown of Congress scion Rahul Gandhi as lacking consistency, underlined the Congress’ insecurity about its ally.
Despite its string of electoral debacles, Congress leaders complain that the party is yet to shed the top-down, high-command culture, where decisions are driven by those in Delhi. In contrast, the NCP, which is essentially based in Maharashtra, is nimble on its feet.
The letter from Sonia may also be aimed at soothing ruffled feathers among some leaders from the Congress who do not see eye-to-eye with the party’s state leadership.
For instance, some Dalit leaders are upset over the party’s choice of nominees to the state legislative council from the Governor’s quota. The state unit also lacks a full-time president with revenue minister Balasaheb Thorat, continuing to hold the charge. His opponents claim that despite being an eight-term legislator from Sangamner in Ahmednagar district, Thorat lacks the pan-Maharashtra mass base, heft and appeal needed to grow the party.
This led to Maharashtra minister and NCP leader Nawab Malik claiming that Sonia’s letter could have been prompted by complaints by Congress ministers and internecine fights, prompting an angry retort from Thorat.
As the results of the recent legislative council elections, where the party’s nominee trounced the BJP’s candidate from the prestigious Nagpur graduates constituency, which is a saffron bastion reveal, the Congress may be down, but not out. The party still retains strong pockets of support and its leaders can ensure an electoral miracle if they stay united.
Hence, as many Congress leaders would like to agree, the party high command seems to have made the right moves to shake off the perception of being in power, but not in authority. After all, better late than never.
Dhaval Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas.’ Views are personal