The Eknath Shinde story: Former auto driver who changed the game in Maharashtra politics

Once an auto-rickshaw driver in Thane city adjoining Mumbai, Shinde (58) quickly emerged as a key Sena leader in the Thane-Palghar region after joining politics.
Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde (File photo| PTI)
Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde (File photo| PTI)

MUMBAI: Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde, who is at the centre of the current political turmoil in Maharashtra, had a humble beginnings and rose to become a top member of the party, in the process acquiring formidable organizational skills and a wide mass base.

Once an auto-rickshaw driver in Thane city adjoining Mumbai, Shinde (58) quickly emerged as a key Sena leader in the Thane-Palghar region after joining politics and is known for aggressive approach towards issues of public interest.

The Sena leader, a four-time MLA who holds urban development and PWD portfolios in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, never hides his humble origins. On the contrary, he makes it a point to mention it at times to underscore how he has been indebted to the saffron party and its founder late Bal Thakeray for his rise in state politics.

Born on February 9, 1964, Shinde left his education before he could complete graduation and soon got associated with the Shiv Sena when it was growing in the state. Originally hailing from Satara district in western Maharashtra, Thane district, a Sena stronghold, is now his political home.

Bal Thackeray formed Shiv Sena in 1966 on 'sons-of-the-soil' plank and later the party aggressively championed the cause of Hindutva. The party's aggressive approach towards issues close to its heart and the powerful persona of Bal Thackeray prompted Shinde to join the Sena in Thane.

The sitting MLA from Kopri-Pachpakhadi in Thane city is known for taking part in street politics and faces dozens of criminal charges such as voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons and rioting, among others.

Growing under the shadows of Shiv Sena stalwart from Thane Anand Dighe, he became his deputy and strengthened the party after the sudden death of his colleague in 2001.

He became a corporator in the Thane Municipal Corporation in 1997 and won his maiden Assembly election in 2004 and is currently in his fourth term as an MLA. Shinde, often seen as the No. 2 leader in the party, was made Sena's Thane district head in 2005. His son Dr Shrikant Shinde is the sitting Lok Sabha MP from Kalyan in the district.

Shinde was appointed the Leader of Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly for a brief period in 2014 when Sena had not finalised its pact with the then-ally BJP for joining the Devendra Fadnavis cabinet.

His clout grew when the Shiv Sena joined hands with the BJP to form a government under Fadnavis post-2014 assembly elections.

Shinde, a popualr political figure, came closer to then-Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis (2014-19) and their association became a matter of discussion so much so that except for the Thane Municipal Corporation (the Sena minister's home turf), the BJP contested elections to all civic bodies in Maharashtra in 2016 against the Shiv Sena.

When the Shiv Sena snapped ties with the BJP and formed the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government with the NCP and the Congress in late 2019, he became a cabinet minister.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the NCP handling the health ministry, it was Shinde- controlled MSRDC department that set up healthcare centres in Mumbai and its satellite cities to treat coronavirus patients. His closeness with Fadnavis turned his own party leaders against him.

The tension grew so much that after Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray became chief minister in 2019, Shinde was made guardian minister of Naxal-hit Gadchiroli district (along with Thane), located faraway in the Vidarbha region which is generally seen as a punishment. However, Shinde remained a key political asset for the Shiv Sena.

Shinde is considered a leader with grassroots touch as he is always available to hear the grievances of party workers and colleagues. He is known to start his day early in the morning and continue his visits to party workers till late night.

Ironically, Shinde himself went incommunicado on Tuesday morning and later surfaced in a Surat hotel with a bunch of Sena MLAs, plunging the two-and-a-half-year old MVA into a deep political crisis with his act of rebellion against his party's leadership.

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The New Indian Express