Perhaps the best takeaway from the emerging Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress axis would be the sobering of the Thackeray party, whose brand of Hindutva has hitherto been sharper than that of the Sangh Parivar’s VHP. Superficial changes are already visible, like the sartorial preference of Sena boss Uddhav Thackeray ever since he opened talks with NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar. Saffron clothing has been packed off. And Sena’s rabble rouser Sanjay Raut sidestepped a loaded question on the party’s position to honour Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar with the Bharat Ratna, saying he would not fall into the trap.
The BJP visibly softened after getting into power for the first time with Vajpayee leading a coalition and Advani saying governance was mostly ideology neutral. One hopes it happens to the Sena as well. Instead of lampooning it as a case of the tiger changing its stripes, the change could be read positively as one of sandpapering its harsh edges, thus contributing to national integration.
As Uddhav admitted, he was learning from experience how the BJP had managed to find common ground with parties professing diverse ideologies to stay in power. It’s for this reason Uddhav’s visit to Ayodhya on Sunday next would be watched with interest. Remember his party had earlier bragged about Sena kar sevaks bringing down the Babri structure and accused the BJP of shying away from hard Hindutva. Now that Sena will be occupying the Opposition benches in Parliament, its nuancing on issues like the human rights situation in J&K will also be interesting.
The Congress is helping the Sena’s mainstreaming at great personal risk. In her gamble for power, interim Congress president Sonia Gandhi has shown there are no political untouchables. One wonders if the party would have responded similarly had Rahul Gandhi continued at its helm. As for the BJP, it would surely harp at the Congress ‘duplicity’ on secularism to draw minority votes across India, and try to chip away at the Sena’s base. The chessboard has been interestingly set.