Mumbai: In December 2019, an unthinkable political alliance – between the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress party – was formed in Maharashtra. While the formation of the tri-party government (also called the Mahavikas Aghadi) managed to bring a grinding halt to the political rise of Devendra Fadnavis in both the state and central politics, its own political trajectory has been a rather bumpy one.
The recent in the long list of crises is the loss of Sena’s nominee Sanjay Pawar in the June 10 Rajya Sabha elections, followed by cross-voting in the state legislative council polls concluded on June 20.
Now, a sudden “rebellious move” by senior Sena leader and state cabinet minister Eknath Shinde has dealt the worst political blow to the Mahavikas Aghadi. Shinde, who senior Sena leaders claim, has been “unreachable” since last night, is reportedly camping in a hotel in Surat along with at least 30 more party MLAs.
While initial speculation indicated that at least 12 MLAs could be supporting Shinde, the number has now gone up to 30.
This is the first and biggest coup that the Sena could be suffering since the party came to power.
What is the recent crisis about?
Shinde, until now one of most loyal Sena leaders around, is a four-time MLA and a strong face from Thane district in Maharashtra. He was a close confidante of Sena founder, late Bal Thackeray. In the 1980s and 1990s, Shinde worked closely with the party’s then Thane district chief Anand Dighe. Upon Dighe’s passing, Shinde assumed the role in the district.
Shinde has not made the reasons for his disaffection clear but party sources say that he felt “side-lined” by the party.
A senior party worker told The Wire that Shinde was ambitious and had been “eyeing” Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s position.
Shinde, many senior leaders in the party also claim, has been unhappy. “He felt he was not being kept in the loop even when important policies were being formulated and party decisions were being taken,” said a party leader.
Shinde had also wanted the party to contest the Thane Municipal Corporation election by itself. His suggestion was turned down by Uddhav Thackeray.
His political ambitions, however – as NCP supremo Sharad Pawar has claimed – were not known to the government. “(Eknath) Shinde has never conveyed to us that he wants to be Chief Minister. The Chief Minister’s post belongs to the Shiv Sena. The Deputy Chief Minister’s post is with the NCP. This is an internal issue of the Shiv Sena. Whatever they decide, we are with them,” Pawar told reporters. He also called Shinde’s dissent Sena’s “internal matter”.
Sena’s politics versus Shinde’s politics
After maintaining silence for many hours, Shinde took to his social media handle to claim that he will continue to be a Bal Thackeray supporter and will never compromise with his principles for political gains. “We are staunch supporters of Bal Thackeray. Balasaheb taught us Hindutva. We will never compromise with Balasaheb and Anant Dighe’s teachings for political gains,” he tweeted at 2:20 pm on Tuesday.
आम्ही बाळासाहेबांचे कट्टर शिवसैनिक आहोत… बाळासाहेबांनी आम्हाला हिंदुत्वाची शिकवण दिली आहे.. बाळासाहेबांचे विचार आणि धर्मवीर आनंद दिघे साहेबांची शिकवण यांच्याबाबत आम्ही सत्तेसाठी कधीही प्रतारणा केली नाही आणि करणार नाही
— Eknath Shinde – एकनाथ शिंदे (@mieknathshinde) June 21, 2022
Shinde’s tweet has sent confusing signals. While it can be interpreted as a message showing Shinde’s loyalty to Shiv Sena, it also appears to be a dig at Uddhav Thackeray who has emerged as one of the most vocal opposition leaders.
In a recent speech, Thackeray hit out at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for compromising India’s stature in the aftermath of the international backlash against BJP’s Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal’s disparaging remarks against the Prophet. At the same time, he defined Shiv Sena’s Hindutva as an ideology that is respectful of all religions, while also invoking a martyred soldier named Aurangzeb to say that Hindutva is not about looking for shivlings under mosques but laying down one’s life for the pride of the country.
Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna, in a critical editorial against the ED’s probe against Congress Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case, had declared that the Modi government is “only short of constructing of constructing poisonous gas chambers built by Hitler eliminating opponents”.
“The BJP not only wants to erase the memories of Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but it also wants to destroy prospects of the Nehru-Gandhi lineage,” Saamna claimed.
Senior Sena leader and MP Sanjay Raut claimed that many (Sena) MLAs who have ended up in Gujarat have been misguided and as soon as they realised what was happening, they contacted the party leaders in Mumbai.
“It is true that some of the MLAs are not in Mumbai and some of them were not reachable since last night. But contact has been established with a few MLAs who went out of the city due to a misunderstanding,” Raut claimed.
He also added that Shinde, who is also in Gujarat, has also been contacted. Raut further claimed a frenzy has been whipped by the media to make the Sena look weak. “Not all names mentioned in the media are true. Some leaders including Gulabrao Patil, Sanjay Rathod and Pratap Sarnaik are already at Varsha bungalow [Uddhav Thackeray’s residence],” Raut claimed.
Thackeray has called for a party meeting at the CM’s residence in Mumbai. Meanwhile two of Thackeray’s close aides – Milind Narvekar and Ravindra Phatak – have reached Surat to meet Shinde and other legislators.
However, not all is rosy. According to reports, Shiv Sena has removed Shinde from the position of the chief whip.
If indeed Shinde’s battalion sticks to its rebellion, unlike NCP’s Ajit Pawar in 2019, such a move may have been in the making, given Thackeray’s increasing tendency to be seen in the secular-nationalist political camp.
Yet, he will need the support of 37 legislators out of Shiv Sena’s 55 to avoid the anti-defection law.
However, as instances of similar crises in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh have showed, the BJP can still form the government if Shinde and other rebels, said to be over 30, decide to resign from the assembly in support of the saffron party.
In that case, the BJP with 106 MLAs (38 short of majority 144) will be positioned well to dislodge the MVA government in an assembly with reduced strength.
On Monday, June 20, the first big blow arrived when BJP succeeded in winning five out of the 10 seats in the state legislative council polls. While the BJP had the votes to win only four, it managed all five seats it had contested. This was an outcome of what could only be large-scale cross-voting.
According to BJP Maharashtra president Chandrakant Patil, the party secured 134 preferential votes. Besides its own 106 MLAs, the party had the support of seven other MLAs – both independent and from smaller political parties. The additional 21 votes, Patil indicated, came from the MVA. Fadnavis attributed the cross-voting to “discontent in the MVA government”.
The BJP is understood to have been actively working to exploit the unrest in the ruling coalition.
Patil claimed that though the party (BJP) has not been approached by Shinde or any other Sena leaders so far, it is watching the political developments closely. “Anything can happen in government at any time,” the Maharashtra BJP chief said.
Since all the “rebel” Sena MLAs are currently camped in Surat, political observers are speculating that BJP’s Gujarat state president C.R Patil has had a hand in the current crisis.
The Gujarat BJP chief has categorically denied having made any such move to dismember Shiv Sena’s legislative party.