On Wednesday, two senior Congress leaders saw chief minister Uddhav Thackeray walk in the lobby of the state legislature. “Is it that chilly,” a former legislator asked his party colleague in reference to the blue-coloured windcheater that Uddhav was wearing.
“Strange,” said the other Congress leader, “for it is the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) that are experiencing the warmth of power, with the Congress being left in the cold.”
This may be light-hearted banter, but more or less, sums up the thinking in the Congress, which is part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra, with the Shiv Sena and NCP.
The Congress feels that while the NCP has walked away with a bulk of crucial ministries in the Uddhav Thackeray-led regime like finance, water resources, housing and home, it was left with just revenue and public works department (PWD).
The distribution of ministerial berths within the three parties ensured that senior leaders in the Congress, like former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, could not be accommodated in the cabinet.
While the NCP could get its nominee, Ajit Pawar, as the deputy chief minister of the state, the claims by the Congress to this position were turned down as it was given the position of the Speaker.
The Congress wanted Maharashtra to have two deputy chief ministers. Ajit, who launched a short-lived rebellion by being sworn in as the deputy chief minister with the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, but returned to the party fold later, also holds the finance department.
Bureaucrats and politicians claim that Ajit, who is known for being upfront to the point of being rude, is driving the agenda in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, and is seen as the dominant alpha male of the dispensation.
Uddhav, who lacks experience in legislative politics, is seen as having left the field open for his deputy to run the show.
On Twitter, Sandeep Deshpande, general secretary of the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), taunted the Shiv Sena that Ajit Pawar was seen as the de facto chief minister, with Uddhav retreating to the shadows.
Congress ministers and leaders grumble that Ajit often overreaches his authority by holding meetings of departments controlled by Congress ministers and decides on the postings of officials.
Some ambitious proposals floated by ministers from the Congress, like power minister Nitin Raut for free power up to 100 units for residential consumers serviced by the state power distribution utility, are also stuck, reportedly due to objections from the finance department over its financial implications.
The MVA has the bench strength to win four of the seven seats in the Rajya Sabha. The NCP fielded two candidates (Sharad Pawar and Fauzia Khan) and Shiv Sena fielded one (Priyanka Chaturvedi). The Congress, however, had to be content with just one (Rajiv Satav).
The Congress was eager to get the fourth seat that has gone to NCP's Khan, and this has added to the perception in the Congress about getting a raw deal.
However, on the contrary, NCP leaders point to how the Congress, which had all but given up on its chances in the 2019 state assembly polls, was almost riding piggy-back on the aggressive campaign by NCP chief Sharad Pawar.
This ensured that the Congress could get a chunk of the anti-incumbency votes, and 44 legislators in the lower house of the legislature, a marginal rise of two seats from 2014.
“The squabbling between the Congress and NCP used to take place intensely even when they ruled Maharashtra for 15 years between 1999 and 2014. This is natural as the two parties compete for a similar political space in Maharashtra. However, at present, the grouse within the party is that the Shiv Sena is more influenced and led by the NCP and Sharad Pawar than the Congress. So eventually, it may come down to a Shiv Sena and NCP versus Congress situation in this regime,” explained another source in the Congress.
According to him, the Congress was hence wary of any moves by the NCP, which may undermine the politics of the former.
Congress leaders complain that policy is driven largely by the NCP and the Shiv Sena, with the two parties walking away with the credit for welfare schemes such as the farm loan waiver and the Shiv Bhojan thali, which provides meals at Rs 10 for the underprivileged.
As a senior Congress minister admitted, the party may have been handed a raw deal, but this situation may be better than being on the opposition benches for the next five years. For, he said, as the adage goes, something is better than nothing. So, will the Congress come to terms with this arrangement, or will a Jyotiraditya Scindia rise from the ranks of the Maha Vikas Aghadi as BJP leaders claim?
(Dhaval Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas.’ Views are personal)