The Congress is wary of the Shiv Sena’s recent overtures and has decided not to lower its guard against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s oldest ally in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, said a party leader familiar with the thinking in the party.

The internal assessment within the Congress, according to the leader who asked not to be identified, is that the Shiv Sena is trying to occupy the Opposition’s space in Maharashtra by upping the ante against the BJP while sharing power with it both in the Centre, state, and even the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

“They (Shiv Sena) want to make the 2019 Lok Sabha and assembly elections a Shiv Sena versus BJP fight and push us to the third spot. We should not fall into their trap and must keep up our attack on both the parties,” the Congress leader said.

The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have, in principle, decided to fight next year’s elections together and will soon discuss seat-sharing and other modalities. Asked if his party would consider a tie-up with the Shiv Sena, Congress general secretary in-charge of Maharashtra Mallikarjun Kharge said, “We have an alliance with the NCP and it is going to be a formidable combination.”

Congress leaders also question the Shiv Sena’s move to repeatedly target the BJP even as it refuses to quit the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). “If Shiv Sena is serious about BJP’s misgovernance, why is it sharing power with them? It is just grandstanding against the BJP. Basically, it doesn’t want to share the burden of anti-incumbency,” said Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam, who termed the Sena’s behaviour “drama”.

He alleged that the Shiv Sena is an “opportunistic party” and had “lost” its credibility. “We are against the Shiv Sena’s ideology and we will continue to fight that. No matter how much it admires the Congress and our leader, we are going to maintain equidistance from both the Shiv Sena and the BJP. Both are equally bad,” Nirupam said.

Shiv Sena leaders, including its leader Uddhav Thackeray, have in recent days praised Congress president Rahul Gandhi , especially for his speech during a debate in the Lok Sabha on the no-confidence motion and the hug he gave Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They have also appreciated his election campaign in Gujarat and Karnataka.

“It is clear that Rahul Gandhi has graduated from the real school of politics,” Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut said. “This wasn’t a hug, but a shock to Prime Minister Modi.”

The Shiv Sena has also targeted the BJP over the recent wave of lynchings across India. “Those ruling the country are butchers, who save animals but kill humans,” read an editorial in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamana.

But the Congress leaders term this “shadow boxing” and refer to the Shiv Sena’s abstention from the no-trust vote.

“The Shiv Sena should stop the farce of enjoying the fruits (or power) and at the same time speaking against the government,” Maharashtra Congress chief Ashok Chavan said.

“The Congress is suddenly wary of the Sena. We have criticised the government on occasi- ons when its policies went against the people in the past four years, which the Congress has failed to do. They do not seem serious to take on the BJP,” said Neelam Gorhe, Shiv Sena spokesperson.

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