In an exclusive interview with NDTV, Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, who has emerged as an unlikely champion of the Congress, says he told Rahul Gandhi in a meeting yesterday that Mr Gandhi should revive the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, the Congress-led coalition that governed the country between 2004-14.
The Sena has leapt to the Congress' defence as West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the party has neither the ability nor the leadership to be the heart of the Opposition. But the Sena has countered her "There Is No UPA" announcement, declaring there can be no Opposition front without the Congress.
Mr Raut suggested that he went a step further in his meeting with Mr Gandhi, urging him to revive the UPA; he even hinted the Sena may join it. The Shiv Sena is part of a 3-member alliance government. in Maharashtra, along with the Congress and Sharad Pawar's Nationlist Congress Party or NCP.
"We are running a mini-UPA in Maharashtra under Uddhav Thackeray's leadership. So we should have a similar arrangement at the central level", he told NDTV in an interview at his Delhi residence.
When asked if the Sena will join the UPA, he said "I told Rahul Gandhi - invite everybody. People won't just come and join. If there is a wedding or function, we have to send invitations."
"Let the invite come, after that we will think about it. I have conveyed this to Uddhav Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief," he said.
The Sena leader also praised Rahul Gandhi, saying the "way people think of him (Rahul) is not right. He also thinks well. There are some shortcomings (majbooriyan) in his party. He wants to solve those issues'". Ms Banerjee had pointedly criticized Mr Gandhi just days ago, stating "if one does nothing and is abroad half the time, then how will one do politics? For politics there should be continuous endeavour."
pThis staunchly pro-Congress stance of the Sena, a former BJP ally wedded to Hindutva, has surprised political observers, given the sharp ideological differences between both parties, which at one point had raised doubts over whether they could in fact work together.
Amid talk that Mr Raut may have exceeded his brief in his vote of confidence for Rahul Gandhi, he said his is not a solo effort. "What is Sanjay Raut without the Shiv Sena?" he asked, suggesting that he has the support of party chief Uddhav Thackeray on this aspect.
He also brushed aside suggestions that his direct outreach to Rahul Gandhi may have unsettled NCP leader Sharad Pawar, who has long served as the interlocutor between the three parties that co-govern Maharashtra and has been issuing strong statements in support of Ms Banerjee, and therefore, anti-Congress.
"When I was going to meet Rahul, I spoke to Pawar saheb before that. This morning (a day after the meeting). also I spoke to him (Pawar)", he said.