The crisis in the Shiv Sena-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) approached an endgame as an emotional Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray asked rebels to return, asserting that Shiv Sena had a chief minister in the saddle and asking whether they could guarantee this if the alliance partners changed. The rebels, led by Eknath Shinde, for their part, stuck to their ultimatum to their chief: drop the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) from the alliance and tie up with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a more ‘natural’ alliance: “or we will do it for you”.
The rebels who have shifted to Guwahati claimed they had 46 with them — 40 from the Sena and six independents. If that is the case — as numbers are not verifiable — the Uddhav Thackeray government is on its way out.
However, although Thackeray said he was ‘ready to quit’ any time, he did not resign. Instead, he said, in an emotional speech, speaking to MLA virtually as he has tested Covid-19 positive, that he was “hurt” at his own party men turning on him. “Come to me and tell me to resign, to my face, and I'll quit as chief minister. The chief minister’s position came to me accidentally — it’s not something I yearn,” Thackeray said.
“Despite (NCP leader Sharad) Pawar Saheb’s and (Congress leader) Kamal Nath’s support, if my own people don’t want me to be chief minister, then what should I do? I don’t know if I can call them my people because they don't see me as theirs,” he said.
The only document available is a letter by 34 MLAs, who are at a hotel in Guwahati in BJP-ruled Assam, to Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari that Eknath Shinde is their leader. The signatories to the letter include 30 Sena and four independent MLAs.
Shinde needs seven more Sena MLAs on his side to split the party without risking disqualification under the anti-defection law. Four more Sena MLAs took a flight to Guwahati on Wednesday evening, escorted by Maharashtra BJP chief Chandrakant Patil. Thackeray said he was “getting calls from MLAs who have gone with Shinde claiming that they were kidnapped”.
Shinde made moves on Wednesday to assert himself as the boss of the Shiv Sena, challenging a Thackeray for the first time in the party. “In the past two years under the MVA government, only the coalition partners benefitted while the Shiv Sainiks were left frustrated. While our allies gained strength the Shiv Sena and Sainiks were deliberately weakened. For ensuring the survival of the party and Sainiks, it is necessary to step out of this unnatural alliance. It is time to take a decision for the greater good of Maharashtra,” he wrote on his Twitter handle. He said he would carry forward the "Hindutva" ideology of Balasaheb Thackeray, indicating that Uddhav Thackeray had allowed the whittling down of the Sena's core ideology in its partnership with the ideologically opposed NCP and Congress.
“Shiv Sena will never give up on Hindutva,” Thackeray retorted. “Some people are saying that this is not Balasaheb's Shiv Sena. I want to ask what I have done that this is not Balasaheb's Shiv Sena.” The prime tactician, the BJP, said it had nothing to do with the drama that was playing out, even though its stamp on all the developments was more than evident. “No Shiv Sena MLA in touch with us. We have not spoken to Eknath Shinde. This is Shiv Sena’s internal matter. BJP has nothing to do with this. We are not staking claim to form a government,” said BJP leader Raosaheb Patil Danve after meeting with party’s Devendra Fadnavis in Mumbai. This was an extraordinary assertion as it is in a BJP-ruled state that the Sena rebels have found ‘protection’.
What Danve’s statement means is that Shinde and not Devendra Fadnavis is the BJP’s candidate for CM, and they will support Shinde despite being the bigger party with 106 MLAs — though whether they will join the government or will support from outside is unclear. This presents its own set of challenges for BJP. However, the party believes that is a bridge that needs to be crossed later.
The developments are variations on theme used by the BJP to form a government from an existing assembly by engineering defections: first in Karnataka, then in Madhya Pradesh.