Mumbai: The Shiv Sena’s breakaway faction of MLAs led by Eknath Shinde heaved a sigh of relief Monday when the Supreme Court gave them until 12 July to respond to disqualification notices issued by the Deputy Speaker of the Maharashtra assembly. But the breather hasn’t solved the faction’s biggest dilemma: Whether to merge with another party or somehow prove they are the ‘real’ Shiv Sena.
Due to the anti-defection law, the Shinde faction’s goal of bringing down Maharashtra’s Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government — a coalition comprising the Shiv Sena, NCP, and Congress — is not easy to achieve. The law says that they cannot claim to be a separate group within the assembly and will have to merge with another party.
The BJP appears to be the most obvious option should there be a merger, but, according to political sources in Maharashtra, the faction is also looking at the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), which is led by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s estranged cousin Raj Thackeray.
Eknath Shinde is said to have spoken to Raj Thackeray over the past few days, mainly to enquire about his health, but “a discussion over politics cannot be ruled out”, an MNS leader told ThePrint on condition of anonymity.
He added that while there has been no formal proposal from the Shinde camp, the MNS is willing to “think about it” if it does arrive.
So far, the Shinde faction has publicly stuck to the stance that they are the “true” Shiv Sena and do not need to merge with anybody.
However, an MLA from the faction admitted that other possibilities are not out of the question.
“Our first priority is to get the support of more party members from the Uddhav camp to prove we are the real Sena. But if that doesn’t work out, the last option left will be to join the BJP or MNS,” the MLA said. “It all depends on how things unfold… there is no denying that we have the numbers to approach the governor and form government.”
Options for a merger
The 2003 amendment to the Constitution’s Tenth Schedule, referred to commonly as the anti-defection law, restricts the ability of a party’s breakaway faction to form a separate group in the assembly. To avoid disqualification, such a group must merge with another party.
If it comes to it, the Eknath Shinde faction is said to have three options for a merger currently.
The first is the BJP, which seems like a natural choice, but this is easier said than done. A highly placed source in the MVA government told ThePrint that there is a split within the rebel group about merging with the BJP, with some MLAs viewing the “dominance” of the national party as a threat to their political relevance.
MLA Deepak Kesarkar, who is part of the breakaway group, has said publicly that the faction is not keen on a merger.
“We are not going to merge with any party. We are very much part of the Shiv Sena. And since the majority of Sena MLAs are with us, [this group] will be considered the real Sena,” he has said.
The BJP, meanwhile, is in wait-and-watch mode. “It all depends on how things unfold in the next few days. Sena MLAs may become desperate as things are left hanging for the next 12 or 13 days. Things may go against both sides [of the Sena], after which merger and staking claim for government formation will be the only option. Now, it is up to the rebel group to see how they want to move ahead,” a Maharashtra BJP leader told ThePrint.
The second option for the rebel faction is to go with the Prahar Janshakti Party (PJP). This party has two MLAs in the Maharashtra assembly. Its leader, MLA Omprakash Babarao ‘Bacchu’ Kadu, has already extended his support to Shinde and is camping with him in Guwahati. However, the PJP is a small party and focuses primarily on farmers’ rights, which does not make it a very attractive proposition for the Shinde camp.
The third option is the MNS, which shares common roots with the Shiv Sena despite the parties having a fractious equation.
A potential ‘win-win’, with some pitfalls
According to the MNS leader quoted earlier, joining hands with the Shinde camp could be advantageous for both sides.
“It will be a win-win situation for both of us. Around 40 MLAs joining us will give a boost to us. As for them, they will get [to be associated with] a pan-Maharashtra face (Raj Thackeray),” he said.
The MNS’ aggressive Hindutva and association with late Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray would also align with the Shinde camp’s stance.
However, not all the rebel MLAs are enthused by the idea, with some believing that MNS chief Raj Thackeray might overshadow Shinde.
“If Eknath Shinde merges with the MNS, he will be second in command and Raj will be supreme. Besides this, Raj’s election outcomes have not been so impressive,” an MLA from the rebel faction said on condition of anonymity. However, he added, the “Sena legacy” and “aggression” of the MNS did hold some appeal.
“It will be an experiment to explore if there is no other option left,” he conceded.
Meanwhile, the benefits of a merger are more obvious for the MNS, which currently has just one MLA, Raju Patil. The party would get a boost and the chance to expand its footprint in Maharashtra if 40-odd MLAs from the faction joined it.
“These MLAs carry weight in their constituencies. We would get the upper hand in the upcoming local body elections, including the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, Thane, Kalyan-Dombivli, and also in the assembly polls,” the MNS leader said.
Of late, Raj Thackeray has reserved scathing criticism for the MVA government but has displayed greater alignment with the BJP, despite being a vocal critic of the party earlier.
The MNS leader quoted above said he believed that a merger of the Shinde camp with the MNS could benefit the BJP too. “The BJP will need a partner to fight the upcoming elections, whether it is for local bodies or for the Lok Sabha. With this merger, it will be logical,” he said.
With their similar ideological underpinnings, particularly Marathi pride and Hindutva, the Shiv Sena rebel camp and the MNS also seem like a “logical” pairing.
In what now seems to be symbolically significant, Eknath Shinde was involved in the making of a film called Dharmaveer — a biopic about Thane Shiv Sena strongman Anand Dighe, which released last month. The film shows Dighe telling Raj Thackeray that “carrying Hindutva forward is now your legacy”.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)