The rebellion that ended his tenure as chief minister would have happened sooner had it not been for the pandemic
Uddhav Thackeray announces his resignation as chief minister of Maharashtra on June 29, 2022
The political drama in Maharashtra ended with the dramatic resignation of Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on a Facebook live post on the night of June 29. But that was not where the tale ended. A day later, in an unanticipated development, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared that Shiv Sena rebel leader Eknath Shinde would be chief minister. While this meant that BJP’s own Devendra Fadnavis would have to step aside, BJP deprived Thackeray of the chance to claim that the son of Bal Thackeray had been replaced by an envious former ally. It was a bold move to completely win over the Sena base and, since Shinde is a Maratha, the decision may impose costs on Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) too.
The judicial developments on June 27 had set the ball rolling as the Supreme Court framed crucial questions to decide how Shinde’s claim—that he commands the support of more than two-thirds of party legislators—would be settled. As has been apparent for a while, the tussle between the Sena factions was heading for a floor test or a resignation, which would establish whether the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government enjoyed majority support. The question was how this would happen, as the Shinde camp chose to ask Thackeray to leave MVA and ally with BJP, rather than approach Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari with a list of rebel MLAs. It was only recently that former chief minister Fadnavis had said the breakaway faction could not be labelled rebels as Thackeray had been left with just a rump of the legislative party. His call on Koshyari late on June 28, with a BJP delegation demanding a trust vote, was followed by the governor asking Thackeray to face a floor test on June 30. A court intervention that MVA had hoped for did not happen, with the Supreme Court refusing to intervene even as it said the final result would depend on the outcome of Sena chief whip Suresh Prabhu’s plea challenging the governor’s direction. In the end, Thackeray gave an emotional speech, saying allies had stuck by him while “his own” had let him down. But for the Sena rebels, it was Thackeray who had let down the Hindutva legacy of Bal Thackeray.
To some observers, the crisis in the Sena is not only not a surprise but could well have happened earlier had it not been for the onset of the Covid pandemic in March 2020. Right from the start, MVA were odd partners, with Thackeray having made friends with Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress, political forces the Sena had bitterly opposed for decades. The ‘glue’ that held them together seemed powerful enough—a shared fear of political diminution should BJP lead the government—but the pact came with several unpalatable side-effects. While Thackeray fulfilled his mission to become chief minister, his decision to jettison BJP resulted in a series of contradictions. For one, the Sena was left with no alternative but to target BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for seeking to belittle the regional party and consign it to a secondary role for good. Yet, Sena candidates, just like those from BJP, had substantially benefitted from Modi’s popular appeal in the 2019 Assembly polls which came soon after the prime minister’s impressive second Lok Sabha victory. For the Sena’s cadre and voters, Modi is hardly the enemy. Rather it was NCP and Congress whom the Sena base saw as having presided over 15 years (1999-2014) of mediocre governance marked by graft allegations and use of the administrative and police machinery to protect political and criminal interests. NCP’s stewardship of the home department in particular remained ingrained in the minds of many voters, with the release of a set of accused in the 2002 serial blasts case by a special court for lack of evidence seen as careless investigation, if not complicity.
While a section of the Sena seemed inclined to go along with the decision to form MVA, the faultlines were never far from the surface. The charge that Thackeray had abandoned Hindutva was always going to hurt even though the party rebutted the allegations and Aaditya Thackeray, the chief minister’s son and heir apparent, visited Ayodhya recently. The demand that mosques should remove loudspeakers, raised by the ‘other’ Thackeray, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray, discomfited the Sena more than it should have. Raj Thackeray has made a limited impact in the electoral arena but always attracts attention when he raises Hindutva issues. His ultimatum on loudspeakers created quite a flutter. It put the Sena on the defensive, all the more so when comparisons were offered with the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government which persuaded thousands of mosques and temples to do away with loudspeakers that had become a source of discord.
WHEN NEWS OF a bunch of Sena MLAs ‘checking into’ a hotel in Surat began to burn the wires on June 21, their arrival did not cause a stir in the BJP camp. Political sources close to the development asserted that the possibility of Shinde commandeering two-thirds of Sena MLAs was apparent right from the beginning. The departure of the MLA who represents the area where the Sena Bhawan is located only sharpened the irony. The view in BJP was clear enough: that the objective was to form the government in Maharashtra, a prize the party lost despite frenetic attempts to marshal numbers with NCP leader Ajit Pawar once Thackeray broke the alliance. A situation where a pre-poll partner walked out of a winning alliance to form a government with parties it had opposed in the election was a first, even taking into account the chequered history of “aya ram, gaya ram” politics in India. The Sena insisted that Union Home Minister Amit Shah had conceded its claim to share the chief minister’s post but the leader and BJP denied any such assurance. Fadnavis had in his election speeches repeatedly asserted that BJP would hold the post. The result—BJP’s 106 seats to the Sena’s 55—only served to underscore the point. The BJP leadership smarted under the betrayal but for some time did not attack MVA as vigorously as it could have, possibly due to expectations that a realignment could take place. There was an off-on speculation about Pawar joining hands with BJP but the fact was that the Maratha veteran virtually ran the state, offering advice to first-time Chief Minister Thackeray. Although NCP and the Sena occasionally played a ‘balancing’ game with one another, there was no real prospect of any of the MVA partners walking out of the arrangement. It was only when this sank in did BJP adopt a more aggressive role, attacking the Sena for issues of governance and graft, with the sensational Param Bir Singh-Anil Deshmukh-Sachin Waze episode providing just the opening the party needed. This was followed by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) action against NCP leader Nawab Malik, accused of dabbling in properties linked to Pakistan-based don Dawood Ibrahim.
While a section of the Sena seemed inclined to go along with the decision to form MVA, The faultlines were never far from the surface. The charge that Thackeray had abandoned Hindutva was always going to hurt even though Aaditya Thackeray visited Ayodhya recently
However, ED action alone was no substitute for a political strategy that began to firm up with the Rajya Sabha elections held on June 11 where BJP outsmarted the Sena, winning an unclear sixth seat with the help of independents and cross-voting. The jolt should have been more than a wake-up call, a pointer to events unfolding even then. It is hardly a coincidence that the Sena MLAs landed in Surat soon after MVA suffered a similar setback in the legislative council polls, with Congress losing to BJP. MVA did not even try and make a fight of the legislative polls, with Thackeray confidant Sanjay Raut saying it had been left to individual parties to do the arithmetic and mobilise support.
The stage was then set for Shinde, a powerful grassroots leader whose writ runs unchallenged in Thane, to challenge the Thackerays. He did so by raising the “betrayal” of Hindutva, saying that the MVA experiment had benefitted NCP and Congress to the detriment of the Sena. He called on Thackeray to break an unnatural alliance and re-ally with BJP. The strength of the revolt took the Sena leader and his coterie by surprise. Unlike earlier insurrections when individual leaders and a clutch of their supporters left the party, this time the rebel ranks swelled by the day. Faced with a tsunami, Thackeray has chosen a legalistic response, with Deputy Speaker Narhari Zirwal, who is from NCP, serving disqualification notices to Shinde and 15 other rebels. But the issue at hand was whether the rebels could be guilty of violating a whip for not turning up for a meeting convened by the chief minister. This is highly contestable as such a whip applies to actions on the floor of the legislature. The other urgent issue, which the Supreme Court is examining, is Zirwal’s competence to decide disqualification since a no-confidence motion has been submitted against him. The court’s decision to prevent any action against the rebels till July 11 has come as significant relief to Shinde who promptly declared that this was a victory for “Balasaheb’s Shiv Sena”.
With the disqualification axe held back, the rebels prepared to argue that they be allowed to vote in a floor test. A violation of the whip and whether the dissenters fall foul of the anti-defection law cannot be judged in advance. Any number of instances, such as the much-discussed 2008 trust vote on the Manmohan Singh government after the Left withdrew its support over the India-US nuclear deal, saw MPs break ranks to support the government. More recently in Karnataka in 2019, Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) rebels adopted a different route to challenge the government led by HD Kumaraswamy by resigning in clutches and reducing the majority mark in the Assembly to BJP’s advantage. Having fallen short by just seven MLAs in the 2018 Assembly election, BJP had to stand on the sidelines as Congress supported JD(S) to form a government. The Congress-JD(S) alliance was immediately hailed as a ‘model’ to unite the opposition. The Lok Sabha polls that followed the year after defied such expectations with BJP winning 25 of 28 seats and 51.75 per cent of the vote. BJP’s dominant performance immediately put the Kumaraswamy government under pressure.
MVA’s numbers were much more daunting, with the Sena winning 56, NCP 54 and Congress 44 seats. But soon enough there was serious dissent brewing as Sena MLAs felt sidelined and resentful about having to kowtow to Thackeray’s lieutenants like Raut and put up with Aaditya Thackeray’s dalliance with liberal opinion. Thackeray’s split with BJP was based on a long list of grievances, such as being ‘cheated’ of the leadership in 2014 when the partners had fought separately (so did NCP and Congress). There was, above all, bitterness about Modi’s popularity which was seen to sway traditional Maharashtrian and Gujarati voters who had supported the Sena.In a twist in the tale, the electoral validation of Modi’s politics helped convince Sena rebels that being in MVA was a losing proposition. Yet, if Thackeray had indeed settled with BJP on seat-sharing in 2014, the Sena would have led the government. In the end, BJP won an unexpected 122 seats to Shiv Sena’s 63 and the relationship changed forever. Having for long accepted a junior partner status in Maharashtra with the late Balasaheb as chief mobiliser for the saffron alliance, BJP now came to lead the government and found in Fadnavis a new and energetic leader.
Sign Of The Four
SHARAD PAWAR, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). In June 1999, the Maratha leader formed NCP after disputing Sonia Gandhi’s right to lead Congress by raising the matter of her foreign origin. Since then NCP has remained a Maharashtra outfit with a small presence in a few states. His success, unlike many other Congress rebels, was to have held on to his turf in western Maharashtra and winning enough seats to force Congress to share power in the large and populous state. His plans have worked well mostly, but the script began to go awry once Narendra Modi became prime minister. For one, not only did Congress-NCP lose the state polls but BJP became the senior partner in the saffron alliance. This meant the end of a subtle détente that saw political parties refrain from going after one another’s core interests. Winning after losing the 2019 Assembly election was an unexpected bonus and put the veteran in the driving seat. He became both elder statesman and helmsman of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA). It also helped, at least temporarily, to defuse a latent leadership tussle in his party as seniors, such as nephew Ajit Pawar, chaffed at the possibility of Pawar’s daughter Supriya being the political heir. Now, the likely end of the MVA experiment will again raise questions about NCP’s future.
EKNATH SHINDE, rebel Shiv Sena leader. The well-built Sainik from Satara has been a well-known figure in Shiv Sena, winning four Assembly elections since 2004. Once having driven an auto-rickshaw, he was taken under the wings by Sena veteran Anand Dighe who recognised a spark in the rough-hewn young man whose family had settled in Thane. He fully justified that faith by becoming the surprise choice for chief minister in a turn of events his late mentor could hardly have anticipated. He tapped into a thick vein of discontent over Uddhav Thackeray’s aloofness and a coterie’s dominance in mediating with the cadres. The drift on Hindutva and the impression that allies like NCP were calling the shots only heightened the unrest. Shinde’s success in moving more than two-thirds of Sena MLAs and some independents to Guwahati was a big strike in his favour. Uddhav’s reminder that the Sena would lose the top spot if he was supplanted failed to move the rebels. With Shinde set to be chief minister, it is Thackeray who could lose his family badge—the Sena Tiger.
DEVENDRA FADNAVIS, BJP. Just like Eknath Shinde, the articulate former chief minister needed to take the Sena rebellion to fruition as he has had a key role in the events. It was his shrewd sense of the moment that saw BJP strike an understanding with influential independents like Hitendra Thakur and others to defeat the Sena candidate for the sixth Rajya Sabha seat recently. But rather than regaining the chief minister’s chair, he announced Shinde as the nominee. BJP later said Fadnavis should be in the ministry as deputy chief minister. His pugnacious fight, after being relegated to the opposition ranks despite leading the winning alliance, had kept BJP in the news, effectively taking up controversies that had hit the MVA government. He will remain critical to ensuring the understanding with the Sena rebels holds and the new alliance gels. He has emerged as one of the tallest BJP leaders in the second rung apart from UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Despite the support MVA received from opinion opposed to BJP—with the Sena sanitised in ‘secular’ colours—Fadnavis has been a credible face for the party, aided by his clean image when in office. Though he picks his words with care, Fadnavis can be combative, repeatedly attacking Uddhav Thackeray for abandoning Hindutva.
UDDHAV THACKERAY, Shiv Sena. He was father Balasaheb Thackeray’s chosen one, and for Shiv Sainiks who revere the late Thackeray’s memory, there was no disputing the decision. Although he lacked Balasaheb’s ability to sway crowds, Uddhav in his initial days understood the basics of his party, its role in articulating Marathi and Hindu sentiments, and using street power to ‘protect’ supporters from being targeted during communal riots. The miscalculation in 2014, when he rejected what could have been a winning hand by seeking a higher number of seats to contest, saw the Sena lose its primacy in the alliance with BJP. His determination to regain the top slot saw him become susceptible to the blandishments of aides who kept reinforcing a narrative of a legacy denied. His decision to ally with NCP and Congress was a turning point in Maharashtra politics and differences with BJP only grew. As BJP was in office at the Centre, the Sena leader had taken a big risk turning his ally into a deadly foe. Eknath Shinde’s rebellion pushed him to a corner. The stakes were high since, if he lost, Thackeray stood to forfeit not just the government but a legacy that he might find difficult to win back.