The swearing-in of Eknath Shinde as chief minister of Maharashtra has brought the curtains down on a political drama played out over several weeks in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. The current turbulence started soon after the 2019 assembly election when Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray reminded the BJP of a power-sharing agreement reached during his meeting with Amit Shah, the then BJP chief, in June 2018. Uddhav claimed they struck a 50:50 power-sharing deal, including for the chief minister’s post, during the meeting at Matoshri, his house in Mumbai.
Then, Uddhav said, “I had promised my late father Balasaheb Thackeray to install a Shiv Sainik as chief minister, and we will achieve it even without the BJP.”
Ironically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has installed an ordinary Shiv Sainik as chief minister, claiming to fulfil Balasaheb’s dream. That has jolted not only Uddhav but also the BJP in Maharashtra. Modi’s move to make a Balasaheb loyalist chief minister must have caused more pain to Uddhav than losing power due to an embarrassing rebellion in the party.
While resigning, Uddhav played an emotional card. He addressed Hindu Marathi Shiv Sena voters saying, “Look, what they (Shinde and other rebel Senas MLAs) are doing to Balasaheb’s Sena. They are throwing out “Balasaheb’s son.” By appointing Shinde, the BJP has tried to contain the impact of Uddhav’s appeal.
According to BJP sources, Shinde had not used the chief minister’s post as a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the BJP. He was aware that BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis was the only strong claimant for the CM’s post. But, as top BJP leaders hatched a plan in Delhi, “Fadnavis was kept in the loop, always.”
Then, why wasn’t Fadnavis made the chief minister?
BJP sources said: “Maharashtra was never a BJP stronghold. The Congress had very strong roots, and it exists in some pockets even now. As in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had to carry out social engineering in Maharashtra with Maratha votes at the centre point. With a Brahmin chief minister in Fadnavis, the Maratha votes would have remained divided. And, it would not have given a fatal blow to Sena and NCP, as is the case with Shinde. By choosing Shinde, a Maratha leader from Satara as chief minister over a Brahmin Fadnavis, BJP has broken the status quo in Maharashtra’s Maratha politics. It’s BJP’s masterstroke in the ‘fight-to-finish’ battle with Shiv Sena.”
In reality, the BJP had to make Shinde the chief minister, or else the government would not have been stable. Shiv Sainiks are emotional people, and the risk of some of the rebel MLAs returning to Sena is real. With Shinde leading the government, that risk has been greatly reduced, and the BJP can now go all out to capture Sena’s votes.
In one stroke, BJP has tried to appropriate Balasaheb’s legacy, attempted to contain the emotional appeal of Uddhav and drafted a plan to capture Sena’s vote base.
That’s what Sharad Pawar did when he cobbled together an unnatural alliance by forming the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi. The MVA was created to prevent the “communal force” BJP from coming to power, and Pawar asked Uddhav to become the chief minister. Uddhav had his loyal party leader Eknath Shinde in mind, but since Pawar wanted MVA to be a stable force, he closed the exit door of Sena by asking Uddhav to head the government. In that case, Uddhav can’t destabilise his government.
Pawar ensured the stability of the government by keeping a tight grip. Lately, turbulence hit the MVA as the pressure from the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Income Tax authorities mounted on most of their top leaders and business partners. Eknath Shinde’s confidante in Thane also received a notice from tax officials. When the MVA was getting weaker due to corruption cases, the rebellion within Sena sprouted.
A senior BJP leader dismissed charges that central investigating agencies were used against the Sena leaders to engineer a rebellion and destabilise the state government. “Out of all the MLAs who have rebelled against Uddhav, not even two or three are facing cases from the ED. One of them has got a routine income tax notice,” he added.
The political feud between Shah-Uddhav has dominated Maharashtra politics since 2019. The BJP of the Pramod Mahajan era too is finally buried. In one stroke, BJP has tried to appropriate Balasaheb’s legacy, attempted to contain the emotional appeal of Uddhav and has drafted a plan to capture Sena’s vote base.
The Modi-Shah decision may not sit well with former chief minister Fadnavis, who had painstakingly created the circumstances for Uddhav’s ouster. Some sources claim Modi called Fadnavis twice to persuade him to accept the deputy chief minister’s post. Fadnavis had no option but to accept it to benefit from a bigger game engineered by Modi and Shah. If anti-defection cases against rebel MLAs loom large, Shinde may be forced to merge with the BJP or a minor party with some MLAs.
When MVA was created in 2019, many BJP and the RSS leaders were unhappy at the division of hardcore Hindu votes in Maharashtra. One part went to the “secular alliance,” but with Shinde on their side, the BJP is expecting a big chunk of hardcore Hindu votes of Sena to back the Shinde-BJP partnership.
Maharashtra politics has entered a new phase that will shrink two of the four major parties. Congress is already weakened, and Shiv Sena is fighting for survival on legal, political and cultural fronts. A Sena revival led by the Thackeray family may be difficult against the no-holds-barred approach of the BJP.
NCP’s Pawar is the tallest Martha leader, but he has played most of his cards. His party is torn between a daughter and a nephew.
With power on his side, Shinde is better placed to fight than his former boss. By giving Shinde more heft, Modi has added a provincial layer to BJP’s Hindutva appeal.
In the elections to Mumbai Municipal Corporation and other local bodies, the BJP will use Shinde as its mascot. Shinde’s and the BJP’s immediate goal will be to provoke large-scale defections to rein in Shiv Sena in districts ahead of the elections.
In 2019, the BJP said it would not agree to a proposal that allows the Sena to rule even for half a term. That stance has cost the BJP power and the alliance of MVA-ruled Maharashtra.
Even after so many upheavals, the BJP doesn’t have a chief minister in Maharashtra. All five years seem destined to be ruled by two Shiv Sainiks!
A senior BJP leader said: “We don’t play politics by showing off a moustache that can hold lemons (Read: We aren’t arrogant claiming, we won’t compromise). We are flexible people, if and when needed.”