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Maharashtra Political Crisis: The Lede

Game of thrones: Maharashtra witnesses political upheaval like never before

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Game of thrones: Maharashtra witnesses political upheaval like never before

New Maharashtra Chief Minister and rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde will want to win Mumbai Corporation, the Sena’s cash cow.

New Maharashtra Chief Minister and rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde will want to win Mumbai Corporation, the Sena’s cash cow. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

The BJP engineered the Shiv Sena’s split and achieved what it had set out to do in 2019. 

In the 62 years of Maharashtra’s existence the State has not seen a political upheaval of the kind that began on June 20 and ended on June 30. It was a high-octane, edge-of-the-seat politicking in those intense 10 days when the politics of revenge and retaliation were in play.

Once the main act was over, with rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde’s swearing in as Chief Minister and the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as second in command, the rest was a matter of course. Uddhav Thackeray, who had to resign as Chief Minister, tried to hit back by sacking Shinde as a Sena leader, but it was not enough to stop the juggernaut. The BJP achieved what it had set out to do when the Sena ended their partnership in 2019. At that time, Fadnavis had vowed to get the State back. He and his masters at the Centre tried different tactics over the last two and a half years and finally achieved their objective by fomenting rebellion in the Sena.

Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.
Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. | Photo Credit: AFP

To rewind, here is the sequence of whirlwind events that overtook the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA). Immediately after Shinde was sworn in, Governor Bhagatsingh Koshyari called for a special session of the State Legislative Assembly on July 3 and 4 to conduct a floor test and to elect a new Speaker. On June 1, Thackeray signed a letter sacking Shinde as a Sena leader and accused him of indulging in anti-party activities. Deepak Kesarkar, the MLA who has been appointed spokesperson of the rebel group, said that though a collective decision had been taken not to respond to Thackeray, they would have to respond to the termination letter. He said the letter was “an insult to the people of Maharashtra” since Shinde had been elected by the majority of Sena MLAs.

On June 2, the 49 MLAs who had remained in Goa arrived in Mumbai. The same day, Sunil Prabhu, the Thackeray faction party whip, issued a whip saying all MLAs were to be present in the Assembly and cast their vote in favour of Rajan Salvi, the Sena candidatefor the post of Speaker. Shinde responded that it did not apply to him and the other rebels since they had more than two-thirds of the Sena’s strength of 55 in the Assembly. The whip was clearly ignored, and the BJP nominee, Rahul Narvekar, was elected. The Thackeray faction’s leader in the House maintained that ignoring the whip would work against the Shinde camp in a disqualification case in the Supreme Court. On July 3, the Thackeray faction moved the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the new Speaker’s decision to recognise the Shinde faction’s nominee as the party’s chief whip. The matter was listed for July 11. The party’s argument is that a whip is designated by the party and not by the legislative party. On July 4 the new government won the floor test, with 164 votes against 99. On the same day the opposition appointed Ajit Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) as its leader.

A big surprise was that Shinde, and not the BJP’s Fadnavis, was made Chief Minister. With 106 MLAs in a House of 288 as opposed to the Shinde faction’s 50, it seemed obvious that the BJP would get the top post. Just a few hours before the ceremony, a terse note from Raj Bhavan confirmed that Shinde would be Maharashtra’s 24th Chief Minister.

Eknath Shinde along with his wife and grandson during the swearing-in ceremony at Raj Bhavan.
Eknath Shinde along with his wife and grandson during the swearing-in ceremony at Raj Bhavan. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

It was an interesting choice that highlighted the BJP’s strategy. The installation of a Chief Minister from the BJP might have been a political slap to Thackeray and established the party as having the upper hand over the Shinde faction of the Sena. But Thackeray was out anyway, and the BJP’s clout is all too evident to need proof. So, the BJP went with its long-term plan of securing power via elections and by playing the caste card.

Short- and long-term goals

The immediate focus of this government is the upcoming local body elections, specifically the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC). The BMC is the bigger target because Shinde has a tight grip on the TMC. Thane has long been a Sena constituency. But the BMC has been the Sena’s pride and joy and it has held it for more than 20 years. With an annual budget of more than Rs.45,000 crore (this year’s was a record), higher than the budgets of some north-eastern States, it is a prestigious municipal corporation to hold. Currently there are 84 Sena corporators in the 227 wards of the Mumbai Corporation, while the BJP has 82.

The immediate focus of the incumbent Maharashtra government is the upcoming local body elections, specifically the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.
The immediate focus of the incumbent Maharashtra government is the upcoming local body elections, specifically the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. | Photo Credit: EMMANUALYOGINI

The BJP is also planning for the 2024 Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections. Maharashtra has 48 Lok Sabha seats, and the BJP’s target is to win 32 to 35 of them. In the 288-seat Vidhan Sabha, the BJP is looking to get at least 145 seats.

Why Shinde?

In installing Shinde as Chief Minister, the BJP has played the caste card. Shinde is a Maratha. Marathas are Maharashtra’s most powerful community, forming 32 per cent of the State’s population. They are wealthy, have a strong sense of kinship, and are very politically aware. They have also been demanding extra reservation rights. It is definitely a package the BJP can use to its advantage.

Apart from being a Maratha, Shinde is also one of the most senior Sena leaders. He was close to Thackeray and this in itself was a point of triumph for the BJP—for a loyal Minister to give his chief the boot was the stab in the back that the BJP had been waiting for. Shinde also had all the right political schooling. He was a politically hungry man and had grown under the tutelage of the late Anand Dighe, another Sena stalwart. Dighe ruled Thane district, and after his death Shinde stepped into his shoes.

Late Shiv Sena leader Anand Dighe. Dighe ruled Thane district, and after his death Shinde stepped into his shoes.
Late Shiv Sena leader Anand Dighe. Dighe ruled Thane district, and after his death Shinde stepped into his shoes. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

The BJP had researched the situation before settling on Shinde as its target. Resentment had been brewing in Shinde for a while, and he spoke of this in the 70-minute speech that he gave in the Assembly after he won the trust vote. He said this was a revolt and not a rebellion and he called it “historic”. As he spoke, his antagonism showed, and it was clear that this was what the BJP took advantage of. Shinde claims that he was to have been made the Chief Minister after 2019 but was told that the allies (specifically the NCP) did not want him. But later Ajit Pawar told him that it was the Sena’s internal decision to reject Shinde but that was passed off as the NCP’s.

He also said that Ministers from the Sena were wary of the MVA and saw it as a threat to their party. This is curious because the Sena had been the smaller partner in its earlier alliance with the BJP. One would have thought Sena leaders should have had more reasons to be wary of the BJP. 

Shinde also said that all those who joined his rebellion believed that Thackeray was straying from Hindutva and that he, Shinde, was ready to be a “martyr”. There was, of course, no question of being a martyr. It had been too well planned for it to end in something as messy as martyrdom. Simply put, the BJP tapped into Shinde’s burning personal ambitions and used them as the launching pad for the rebellion. The other 40 rebels were probably given the usual lures apart from promises of lucrative ministerial berths. In fact, the stability of this government will be tested after the portfolios are handed out. But to get 40 people to leave is quite a feat and Shinde employed the fear factor for this. He awakened their old fears about their Hindutva ideology being eroded by the coalition partners. This, along with Thackeray’s moderate approach to Hindutva, convinced the Sena rebels that by ditching their leader they were actually saving their party.

Shinde’s speech was delivered with ease and rough humour. He revealed that once he was on board with the BJP, he kept his meetings with Fadnavis so clandestine that they met only at night. “No one knew how or where we met. I used to leave at night when all the MLAs were sleeping and return in the morning before they woke,” he told a House that roared with laughter.

By giving Shinde the top post, the BJP has demonstrated its cool confidence. The not-so-subtle message that is given out is that it will play puppet master.

Thackeray’s ‘coterie’

Apart from the Hindutva issue, there was some dissatisfaction in the Sena and for this Thackeray can be held responsible. When Shinde said that the “coterie around him has brought the party to this state”, it would have touched a chord with many in the Sena. A finger has been pointed at Thackeray’s wife, Rashmi, who has always been ambitious for her husband. When Thackeray and Amit Shah were discussing the modalities of power-sharing prior to the 2019 election, she was reportedly present, according to reliable sources. According to party insiders, she played the persuasive role when it came to breaking with the BJP and tying up with the NCP and the Congress.

As is the wont in many dynastic families, Rashmi brought in her own people. Her sister’s husband liaised with the BJP and her nephew was made secretary of the Yuva Sena. When Bal Thackeray was ailing, she is understood to have strictly controlled access to him in his last days. After her mother-in-law’s death, she automatically took over the women’s wing of the Sena. In September 2019, when Aaditya Thackeray entered the political fray and won his Worli seat, he took his MLA’s oath as “Aaditya Rashmi Uddhav Thackeray”—something that spoke as highly of Uddhav as it did of his wife. In March 2020, she was appointed editor of Saamna. Such is her hold on party matters that she is also referred to as the Sena’s vice president, albeit behind her back.

Uddhav Thackeray driving to Raj Bhawan late at night on June 29 to tender his resignation as Chief Minister.
Uddhav Thackeray driving to Raj Bhawan late at night on June 29 to tender his resignation as Chief Minister. | Photo Credit: EMMANUAL YOGINI

For a number of years, there have been complaints that Uddhav Thackeray’s personal assistant, Milind Narvekar, prevents access to his boss, particularly during the time he was Chief Minister. Narvekar has been with the family for about 30 years. In December 2020, he was elected as chairman of the Mumbai T20 League’s Governing Council at the Mumbai Cricket Association. In September 2021, he was recommended by Thackeray and subsequently appointed by the Government of Andhra Pradesh as a member of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam Trust.

One lingering question remains. How did no one have any idea about Shinde’s plan until it was too late? In his speech Shinde said it had been brewing for long and did not happen overnight. He even indicated that three more MLAs (at the time of Frontline going to press) were ready to join him. It is incredible that no MVA leader was aware of a brewing rebellion until MLAs were smuggled off to Surat.

Sena MPs are now turning restive and want Thackeray to patch up with Shinde. Thackeray has reportedly said that moves need to be made from the other side. There are 18 Sena MPs from Maharashtra, one of whom is Shinde’s son and is with his father’s faction. 

Thackeray believes that the entire exercise was part of a plan to decimate the Sena, and he is probably right. He has been gamely trying to keep his flock together. While addressing Sena district presidents, Thackeray challenged the new government to call for mid term elections, confident that the electorate would vote his Sena back to power. He said it was an insult to the Constitution to run the Legislative Assembly in an arbitrary manner. “This is a BJP ploy to end the Shiv Sena, I dare them to hold mid term elections in the State. Instead of playing all these games, we will go to the court of the people. If we are wrong, people of the State will send us home, and if you [the new government] are wrong, then people will send you home,” said a statement issued by the Sena after his meeting.

After he won the trust vote, Shinde declared his broad intentions for the State as “taking forward Hindutva” as well as a “development agenda”. He said that his government would reduce the VAT on fuel prices and give a boost to agriculture. The new government assured the State it would not indulge in the politics of vendetta. However, one of the first decisions announced was the reversal of an order to stop construction of a car shed for the city’s Metro project in a designated forest area. Environmentally conscious citizens had opposed it and presented an alternative site, which was accepted by the MVA government. After that, a slew of other decisions, primarily those taken by Aaditya Thackeray, have been negated.