It is easy to condemn the Shiv Sena dissident leader Eknath Shinde for rounding up 37 MLAs from under the nose of his boss, Uddhav Thackeray, marching them into the now indispensable Volvo bus, driving them into the airport and then on to a chartered flight to Surat and onward to Guwahati, a BJP-ruled state. With their support, Shinde and the BJP (106 seats in the assembly) could form a government, unless the NCP captained by the ever-resourceful Sharad Pawar pulled off a trick or two. Highly unlikely though.
It is easy to condemn Shinde. But it’s a feat. How do you split the Shiv Sena? Under Uddhav, the Sena had acquired a certain middle-class respectability and a veneer of civility and tolerance not associated with the sons of the soil party that Bala Saheb Thackeray founded in the early 60s. A nativist thuggery and a strong Hindu cult were the characteristics of the party. After the death of the founder, his volatile nephew, Raj Thackeray had briefly tried to wear the mantle of the don and failed. The party had stood with the milder and the rather artistic son of Bala Saheb, Uddhav.
Shinde swears by its old canons. And he believes the edge that the Shiv Sena had in Maharashtra politics has been blunted and the ground ceded to the currently more aggressive BJP.
Contrary to what most observers may believe, the unrest in the Shiv Sena has been long in the making. With the ambitious Devendra Fadnavis, former CM and currently the Opposition and BJP leader in the assembly, pursuing power like a shark the smell of blood, and Amit Shah in Delhi perpetually plotting the downfall of his enemies, the dissidence of Shinde was more gradual than sudden. As a Hemingway character explained how he went bankrupt: at first gradually, and then suddenly.
According to media reports, the governor will be calling for a show of hands on the assembly floor in July second week. The Uddhav-led Maha Vikas Aghadi will fall in all likelihood. The MVA partners, Congress, and NCP (National Congress Party) will sit in the Opposition benches until October 2024, when elections will take place. And they will lose. They will lose because they will not be in a position to offer the goodies to their supporters. With the kind of lackluster leadership that the Congress party or the Opposition, in general, specializes in, Maharashtra will go over to the BJP. And, winning Maharashtra will further strengthen the BJP’s arsenal.
The BJP’s game plan is to erase the differences between local and national Hindu cult and unify the Hindu vote. Uddhav Thackeray’s well-intentioned mistake was to trim the claws of the tiger and muzzle its mouth. The process went against the jingoism that was the cornerstone of the party. Never try to moderate an extremist party. It is like folding up the sail of your ship and hoping to call on the port in good time.
The night after the Thane-based Shinde made his Surat-Guwahati move, every single poster and sign in town praising Uddhav came down. Very clearly, Shinde had been working on his move for long. It is a sign of Uddhav’s complacency, his deceptive sense of entitlement (that the party is his legacy and no one will take it away from him) that he did not act on the intelligence reports that must have surely reached him.
Uddhav has all but conceded defeat: he has shifted out from his official residence to Matoshri. The question now is, who will be the CM? Shinde was the urban development minister, a rich and powerful portfolio. Devendra Fadnavis would not gladly give up his chief ministerial ambitions. He is already in Delhi staking his claims. But it would be suicidal for Shinde to accept anything less than the lead role. The MLAs with him would naturally expect a lot in return for their act of defiance of the Thackeray family. The uncertainty about CM-ship argues for an extended drama in Maharashtra. The last word has not been spoken -- yet.
It is even possible that the NCP and Congress will turn around and support Shinde to keep the BJP out of power for the next two years. This will give them some time to distribute the riches and rewards and queer the pitch for 2024. But even an old fox like Sharad Pawar has met more than his match in Amit Shah. And you would be safe to bet on Shinde actually becoming CM, supported by the BJP. In return, Amit Shah would guarantee Fadnavis the gold in the 2024 elections. Either way, Shiv Sena is done for; the tiger has been defanged.
(C P Surendran is an author and senior journalist. Views are personal.)