After two months of withdrawn silence, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has emerged, apparently recharged and energised, using the militant language that the Sena is known for. He has been addressing the Sena cadre all over Mumbai, urging them on for the big fight of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) election. His speeches are a combination of his trademark droll, powerful digs at his opponents and flashes of vitriol that his father, the late Bal Thackeray, was renowned for.
It was the loss of the Rs.1.5 lakh crore ($20 billion) Vedanta-Foxconn semiconductor project that brought Thackeray out of his shell. The project, which the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) had nurtured almost to fruition, suddenly shifted from Maharashtra to Gujarat on September 13. The opposition MVA lashed out at the Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis-led government saying they had deliberately let the big-ticket project go to a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled State.
Maharashtra’s debt has been growing and, after the lockdown, now stands at Rs.6.50 lakh crore. The semiconductor project would have given the much-needed impetus to job creation as well as served as a flagship to attract new investments to the State. Thackeray spoke plainly when he said the company had been influenced by the Centre and the move to Gujarat was a slap on the face of Maharashtra. He said the government was a puppet that had no pride in Maharashtra and that Shinde had betrayed the State. Forced to admit the loss, a flustered Shinde promised the State a bigger investment soon, but what actually happened was that the State lost one more company—PhonePe, a financial technology application company, announced that it would be shifting to Karnataka.
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Since it came to power on June 30, the government has determinedly set about upturning the work of the MVA. An incomplete list would include getting “all necessary clearances” for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, a pet project of the Prime Minister; permitting a car shed for the Mumbai metro in a forest area, an idea that had been shot down by the MVA; removing and then arresting Sanjay Pandey, Commissioner of Police in Mumbai; changing the law for local body elections to allow direct election to the post of sarpanch; retracting the renaming of Aurangabad to Sambhajinagar–a privilege the new government probably wants to claim for itself; reversing the decision to delimit municipal wards in Mumbai; letting the construction rights of one section of the Sena’s coastal road project in Mumbai be administered by the Centre and the Dharavi redevelopment project.
The MVA allies have pointed out what they term as “revenge decisions” of the government but have not been a proactive opposition otherwise. However, small victories have come their way. After a tense fight in the courts, the Sena won the right to hold its traditional Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park. The Shinde-led government will have to make do with the MMRDA grounds, which are larger but do not resonate as much as the historic Shivaji Park where Bal Thackeray’s memorial is situated.
The Shivaji Park win was like an infusion of blood for Uddhav Thackeray, who threw a challenge to the government saying, “Fadnavis said he would fight for the BMC election as if it would be the last election. I’ll make sure it is his last election…. But I will appeal to all of you to fight as if it is our first election. Asha Bhosle used to say that she sings every song as if it is her first song. I want every one of you to fight like that… every shakha should be open…. The PM is coming for the BMC election campaign. There is also the Home Minister, our traitors and also Munnabhai [Raj Thackeray]. I am waiting for them all to attack us. I challenge Amit Shah to come and fight us. We will show them what war is.”
All this was music to the ears of his supporters but the reality is that the Sena and MVA are still very shaky. The 40 Sena MLAs who followed Shinde and caused the disintegration of the MVA continue to be with the government. In the aftermath of the BJP wave there was a rush of sainiks joining the Shinde camp. Of late there has been a trickle of “returnees”: people who left but were disappointed by the unfulfilled promises of the government. Corporators from Shinde’s stronghold of Thane are returning to the Sena, and Thackeray, true to his word, is welcoming them back. Two former Sena corporators from Thane who went with Shinde have returned to Thackeray. Another who had joined the BJP a while ago and was promoted to the post of vice president of the party’s Mumbai unit has surprisingly quit and returned to the Sena.
Thackeray actually has little choice but to accept them. The party has been mum about its grass-roots losses, but apparently it bled cadre in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the MVA. For example, all except one of the Thane corporators extended support to Shinde. And the results of the recently held panchayat election for the post of sarpanch showed that the Shinde-Fadnavis government still holds the reins. In August, the government passed a law allowing direct election to the sarpanch’s post. Previously panchayat members voted to elect the sarpanch. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress called this a “plot” to forcefully gain power.
The Shinde faction tried to use the NCP’s powerful showing in the sarpanch elections to drive a wedge between Thackeray and Sharad Pawar by saying it was always Pawar’s intention to outmanoeuvre Thackeray. Shinde reportedly said: “Right from the start we warned Uddhav Thackeray that the NCP was set on finishing the Sena but he never listened. He was blinded by the post of Chief Minister. Now see what the NCP has done. It has been consolidating its position ever since the MVA was formed.”
The MVA’s real opponent is not the State government but the BJP government at the Centre. And considering the armoury at the Centre’s disposal, Thackeray’s brave words may not count for much. The Centre has used all the agencies at its command to try and squash the MVA. A special investigation by an English daily showed a “four-fold jump in Enforcement Directorate cases against politicians” since 2014. About 95 per cent of the ED cases are against opposition members, with the Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the NCP the “top three in the net”.
The sarpanch election has showed that the real battle in Maharashtra is between the BJP and the NCP. The BJP has already singled out Pawar as the man behind the MVA. They rightly know that if any opposition can be drummed up against them, it will be via Pawar. This is perhaps true not just for Maharashtra but also at the national level.
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Attempts are being made to include Pawar in ED investigations. The veracity of the accusations seems to be secondary to the government. What’s more important is that they put Pawar and his party on the defensive, leaving them with little time for aggressive politics. The BJP has also been sending its senior leaders to Pawar’s home ground, Baramati. Union Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has been deputed to take Baramati from the Pawars. “Discredit the family and discredit the party” is the simple political line of attack. Two senior NCP leaders–Anil Deshmukh and Nawab Malik–are already in jail on charges of corruption. The name of Sharad Pawar’s nephew, Ajit Pawar, has come up in connection with sugar factories that were recently raided by the ED in cases of alleged scams involving the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank. The BJP is also threatening to reopen a 2012 scam in the State irrigation department when Ajit Pawar was the Minister for Water Resources.
The BJP’s plan clearly is to make Thackeray a has-been. As individuals, neither he nor his son, Aaditya, are seen as political threats. They carry the name and history of the Sena but as proved by Shinde, what really matters is the seat of power. Cutting off Thackeray’s lifelines is the BJP’s strategy of isolating and thereby politically annihilating Thackeray. Two of his mainstays are on the BJP’s hitlist. Sanjay Raut has already been arrested and pressure is mounting on Sharad Pawar.
- After two months of withdrawn silence, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has emerged, apparently recharged and energised
- After a tense fight in the courts, the Sena won the right to hold its traditional Dussehra rally at Shivaji Park. The Shinde-led government will have to make do with the MMRDA grounds
- In the aftermath of the BJP wave there was a rush of sainiks joining the Shinde camp. Of late there has been a trickle of “returnees”
- The MVA’s real opponent is not the State government but the BJP government at the Centre
- The sarpanch election has showed that the real battle in Maharashtra is between the BJP and the NCP
- The BJP has already singled out Pawar as the man behind the MVA and attempts are being made to include Pawar in ED investigations
- The BJP’s plan is to make Thackeray a has-been