A week is a long time in politics, but in Maharashtra’s fractured politics, the next 24 to 48 hours could be longer. Shiv Sena lawmaker and long-time Thackeray family loyalist Eknath Shinde’s rebellion — an attempted coup, if you will — to take over the party and sideline the founding family, is only the first act of a long drama that will likely be played out in the country’s richest state, and it is this act that needs to conclude in the next day or two. The longer this part holds out, there is every chance the rebel side could, in fact, lose its stamina.
Depending on who holds the rope to the cliffhanger at the end of the first act, Act Two will be fought on legal and technical grounds. The immediate question is, what is the impact of Saturday’s disqualification notice by Deputy Speaker Narhari Zirwal to 16 rebel Shiv Sena MLAs, and how will the Shinde faction respond? They have until Monday to send their replies.
There are more, of course: What side will end up with greater numbers? Can the ‘original’ Shiv Sena retain the party symbol, or will the Shiv Sena ‘Balasaheb’ faction get it? At what juncture will the full force of anti-defection law come into effect, and how can Shinde and the team avoid it? Will the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officially come forward and induct the rebel MLAs into its fold and introduce a no-confidence motion against the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government? Will there be an alliance between Shinde and BJP? If yes, what will BJP offer him (there are already whispers of deputy chief ministership and other key departments)?
Zirwal, the acting Speaker, belongs to Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), and while someone at this administrative post is expected to be neutral, political expediency will determine otherwise. It is important to note that the Maharashtra legislative assembly has no Speaker at present on account of Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari’s refusal to allow the election.
Last Friday, Zirwal had approved the appointment of Thackeray loyalist Ajay Chaudhari as the legislature party leader of Shiv Sena and another MLA Sunil Prabhu as the new chief whip. In response, two independent pro-BJP MLAs — Vinod Agarwal and Mahesh Baldi — asserted that the Deputy Speaker cannot disqualify the rebel Shiv Sena MLAs because there is a no-confidence motion against him. Agarwal and Baldi cited Supreme Court judgments to back their argument.
Act Two, therefore, is the most crucial, and will likely determine not only the politics of Maharashtra for the next two-and-a-half years, but also set a template for alliance politics in general. We will come to that a bit later, because, in the middle of all this, is the fundamental question that the Shiv Sena — specifically the Thackerays — have to introspect upon and answer: What does the Shiv Sena of 2022 and beyond, stand for? In the din of social media praise from secular liberals, the Shiv Sena is being accused of forgetting its core voter — the Hindutva supporter. Thackeray’s decision to ally with Congress and NCP alienated a part of this vote bank (Shinde has spoken extensively on this), and while the chief minister has repeatedly said that the party will not forget its ideological roots, his son Aaditya — and indeed Uddhav’s administration itself — is perceived as ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’.
There is no way any party, especially a regional one like the Shiv Sena, can strike a balance between right-wing Hindutva and secular liberalism. It will eventually fall between the two stools and hurt its backside. Uddhav and Aaditya are in this phase at present.
The answer to this identity question will also determine Shiv Sena’s future with Congress and NCP which, apart from the question of the party’s Hindutva identity, is at the core of Shinde’s rebellion. Shinde wants the party to end its partnership with secular parties; Thackeray’s dilemma is that he cannot. Not unless he gives up the CM’s chair. Besides, the Congress and the NCP will never agree to this. Maharashtra, after all, is one of the last bastions of any credible and effective resistance to the BJP juggernaut.
This brings us to Act Three.
The BJP, so far, has been a distant but interested observer. It is still stinging from Devendra Fadnavis’ failed 5 am attempt to form a government with NCP’s Ajit Pawar, when those rebels — in an unprecedented drama played out live on national television — started returning to south Mumbai’s YB Chavan Auditorium where Sharad Pawar was holding a press conference and pledged loyalty to him. This is the primary reason why Shinde took his rebels first to Surat in Gujarat and later to Guwahati in Assam, both BJP-governed states. Shinde does not underestimate Sharad Pawar’s political cunning, even if he may not think highly of Uddhav Thackeray’s administrative acumen.
BJP knows it is almost impossible to break the NCP; besides, it certainly cannot ally with the Congress. The only option for its ‘power-at-all-costs’ strategy is to dismantle the Shiv Sena. It seems to have permanently splintered the party, and after the disqualification notice, any chance of reconciliation between Shinde and Thackeray will most likely be off the table (you cannot write anything off in politics, but this possibility looks remote).
The endgame for BJP, therefore, is clear: Damage the Thackeray family in a manner that will make it improbable, if not impossible, for them to stage a comeback; install Fadnavis in the chief minister’s chair as a reward for his untiring party work in the recent local, Rajya Sabha and Legislative Council elections; and share power with Shinde for the time being. BJP will be okay with the last part as a temporary measure because 2024 will be another story altogether.
Sachin Kalbag is a Mumbai-based writer and editor