How many people would shed tears if Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray steps down? A large section of Mumbai’s liberal intelligentsia, for sure. They couldn’t stand Bal Thackeray’s Sainiks — alleged extortionists, cricket pitch-diggers, Valentine’s Day vigilantes, and whatnot. But they’ve come to love Uddhav — a soft, suave wildlife lover who can give it back to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Ranauts and the Goswamis of the world. They would now want the Sainiks to rediscover their old selves when rebel Sena leaders return to Mumbai. Then there are the Pawars. They have got the best out of the Maha Vikas Aghadi, the three-party coalition of contradictions. In the Congress, the outgoing ministers would be the only ones with broken hearts. And, of course, a couple of BJP leaders in Delhi who might be troubled by Devendra Fadnavis’ rising stature.
This is not to write an obituary of the MVA government yet. Nor is it an article written in anticipation of former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’ return to the helm. Although, one has to be a die-hard optimist to believe the MVA government would survive this storm.
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Maharashtra minister and rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde thought just getting 36-odd party MLAs — of the total 55 — to back him against Uddhav Thackeray would be enough to claim Bal Thackeray’s ideological and political legacy. He probably thought two-thirds of the MLAs would be recognised as a separate group, which could support the BJP to form the government. Shinde should have read the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution more carefully. Having two-thirds of the MLAs doesn’t enable his group to be recognised as a separate group. They must merge with another political party to avoid disqualification.
But how could self-proclaimed flag-bearers of Bal Thackeray’s ideological and political legacy let the BJP appropriate that legacy? After all, they project their rebellion as a righteous movement to reclaim his ideology of Hindutva, which Uddhav purportedly compromised by allying with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). So, if they merge with the BJP, they lose the moral high ground, their Sena identity and Sainik supporters. And once they are out of the Sena and part of the BJP, their bargaining power gets totally diluted. So, keep the merger option aside for now.
Another option being floated in Maharashtra’s political circles is that the Shinde group can merge with the Prahar Janshakti Party (PJP) of Independent MLA Bachchu Kadu, another minister who is standing beside Shinde in Guwahati. The problem with this option is that Kadu is a maverick politician who called BJP MP Hema Malini “a bumper drinker” and even threatened to enter Union minister Raosaheb Danve’s house and “beat him up”.
Eknath Shinde and the BJP would naturally think twice about planning their future collaboration with Kadu at its centre in his capacity as the PJP chief.
The third option before the Shinde camp is to approach the Election Commission of India to claim the Shiv Sena’s symbol. But for that to happen, even with a sympathetic EC, Shinde needs to have a majority of the Sena MLAs, MPs, corporators and party office-bearers on his side. That’s a big ask given that Shinde and his cohorts are not ready to even return to Maharashtra today, fearing backlash from Shiv Sainiks and likely defections from their camp back into Uddhav Thackeray’s.
This dilemma explains the relative silence of BJP leaders. If Shinde group isn’t able to come up with a plausible plan to install the BJP back into power, rebel MLAs may really end up paying for their hotel bill in Guwahati.
Shinde and Fadnavis have different priorities
Shinde’s dilemma doesn’t necessarily boost the prospects of the Uddhav government though. Having petitioned to the assembly deputy speaker for disqualification of 16 rebel MLAs, the MVA leadership would hope for the remaining 20-odd MLAs in Shinde’s camp to eventually break down and bolt out of the stable in Guwahati. Unlike the Congress defectors in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, who got re-elected to claim their rewards, Sena rebels face difficult prospects. If the three MVA parties decide to stay together and Shiv Sainiks remain unforgiving to rebels, the latter wouldn’t want to get disqualified and face bypolls.
That’s the only hope Uddhav has to bring his disgruntled flock back. He must not underestimate Fadnavis though. If the rebels could so easily fly and drive to Surat after voting for the party candidates in Mumbai in MLC polls, the BJP strategist must have worked out legal and constitutional nitty-gritty, too.
There may, however, be a difference in priorities of the BJP and the rebel Sena camp. Howsoever much Fadnavis might want to form the government, his first priority would be to bring the Uddhav government down and get the President’s Rule imposed, when the deputy speaker, the election commission and the courts would come into play. There will be enough time to draw the contour of the next government. Once the MVA government falls, the Congress-NCP-Sena coalition is likely to be over; it will come unstuck. You know how much Rahul Gandhi resented this alliance even though his party MLAs owed little to him in their elections. Many MLAs, especially of the Congress, would then be willing to switch their loyalties even at the risk of getting disqualified and facing bypolls. Cobbling up a robust majority in the assembly to provide a stable government wouldn’t be an issue for the BJP then. In the worst scenario, there would be snap polls. The BJP wouldn’t mind that either. A splintered Sena, a divided opposition and a discredited CM — the BJP couldn’t ask for more.
Incidentally, this is what Uddhav Thackeray would also want unless he can perform a miracle by bringing back the entire lot of rebels, with or without Eknath Shinde. Thackerays know miracles don’t happen just like that. The Sena chief would know that even in the unlikely scenario of half or more of the rebel MLAs returning to the party fold for the time being, the MVA government’s days will be numbered. Even non-Sena MLAs in the MVA are edgy as was evident in the last MLC election when as many as seven Congress MLAs didn’t follow the party’s instructions.
So, what Uddhav Thackeray is doing now is to try to consolidate his hold over the Shiv Sena, while delaying the inevitable to his government. If he is able to isolate the rebels and avert a vertical split in the Sena, he can always live to fight another day and find some ally or the other. He looks resigned to losing. His shift from Varsha, the CM’s residence, to Matoshree, his private residence, in a show of sacrificing power was meant to be an emotional outreach to the Sainiks. But in the process, he came out as a reluctant CM that Maharashtra doesn’t deserve. The fact is the Uddhav Thackeray government, despite complaints about the CM’s inaccessibility, did a reasonable job in Covid management, especially during the second phase of the pandemic when the central government went missing while patients were gasping for breath on pavements in Delhi due to shortage of oxygen cylinders and bodies were seen buried under the sand along Uttar Pradesh rivers. But a missing Thackeray made headlines. He doesn’t even seem to bother much about defending his governance record. When a CM asks why his party colleague, Shinde, should ask questions about his son, Aditya, when his own son is a Member of Parliament, it’s clear he is not looking to defend his administrative acumen and record. He is fighting for his father’s legacy. Read between the lines when Thackerays and his confidants speak in public nowadays. More than saving the government, they are working to regain their grip on the party and deny rebels their seats in an alternative government.
Rebel leader Eknath Shinde’s objective is slightly different from the BJP’s. Both want to bring the MVA government down but their orders of priority are different. Dislodging Thackerays from power is a means for Shinde to marginalise them and gain control of Shiv Sena. He will end up a loser if the government falls but Uddhav Thackeray retains control of his party. An imploding Shiv Sena suits the BJP but it can’t have an independent ally like Shinde who along with other rebel MLAs wants to fight for the rights of the Maharashtrians — the nativist ideology Bal Thackeray began with and which the rebels reiterated in their resolution passed last week when they spoke about “fighting for the rights of local Marathi people.” Rebels seem to forget Maharashtra of the 1960s, when Bal Thackeray founded the Shiv Sena, is not the same as Maharashtra of 2022. The BJP that bore with those nativist Sainiks in the 1980s and ’90s is not the same. Today it’s the most dominant pan-India party that can’t afford to entertain nativist politics in any state.
So, yes, the BJP would go along with the Shinde camp when they go to the Supreme Court against the disqualification notice issued by Maharashtra assembly deputy speaker. The BJP will stand by the rebels when they go to the governor for relief. Shinde is an asset when it comes to dislodging Uddhav Thackeray from power. That done, Shinde becomes a liability for the BJP if he is seeking to take Maharashtra back to Bal Thackeray’s era.
The author is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)