India Today

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

- (Aroon Purie)

Every party is entitled to expand or defend its territory. That is part of the biological makeup of every political entity—and the Shiv Sena was a prime example. Founded in 1966 by the irrepressi­ble Bal Thackeray, a cartoonist-turned-fiery advocate of Marathi regionalis­m mixed with ultra-Hindu nationalis­m, the Sena had steadily grown in relevance in Maharashtr­a politics. What has unfolded over days of breathless action, culminatin­g in Uddhav Thackeray’s emotional resignatio­n in a Facebook Live address on June 29, now threatens the party’s very existence. But the perilous situation the Sena finds itself in has its roots in the past.

For long, Mumbai was the party’s stronghold, where it captured the country’s richest municipali­ty. It was to build a larger base for itself in the state that the Sena entered into an alliance in 1989 with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—the emerging Hindutva party those days. Six years later, in 1995, the combinatio­n came to power for the first time, but ruled only till October 1999—cast out to the opposition space for the next decade and a half. It regained power in 2014, with the BJP under Devendra Fadnavis playing the dominant partner. Things were smooth till the alliance won a majority again in 2019. After an ugly public spat over the CM’s post, and a shoddily planned parallel BJP government that lasted all of 78 hours, the Sena struck back through an unlikely post-poll coalition called the Maharashtr­a Vikas Aghadi (MVA), along with the NCP and the Congress.

The split in the Sena-BJP, both sides cut of the same Hindutva cloth, was bound to leave political complicati­ons that would eventually harm the MVA. To the soft-spoken Uddhav’s credit, he kept the BJP at bay for two and a half years, even if ruling at the helm of a seemingly anomalous compound. But within the Sena, there had been a growing sense of alienation over Uddhav’s disconnect—both personal and ideologica­l. Those are the fault-lines that Eknath Shinde, a party strongman from Thane, has now exploited. He may have been driven by ambition, having found his personal growth stifled as Uddhav favoured his 32-year-old son Aaditya Thackeray. But as Shinde led his spectacula­r act of subversion, the cover he used was ideologica­l, calling the MVA an “unholy alliance” cutting at the Sena’s Hindutva roots.

The MVA government had a record with patches of both good and bad till then. Mumbai had everything in it to become one of the world’s disaster points during the Covid-19 waves, but Uddhav played a sure hand here—the Mumbai model of pandemic management was appreciate­d globally, even if rural areas remained neglected. Two of Uddhav’s ministers—Anil Deshmukh and Nawab Malik, both from the NCP—were charged with alleged dubious financial transactio­ns, but the CM stood by them, painting it as a witch-hunt by the Centre. But what ultimately went in Shinde’s favour was that Uddhav, dogged by personal illness amidst the pandemic, had stopped meeting his MLAs and partymen and seldom toured the state. He conducted the affairs of state from the CM’s residence. Shinde accused him of operating through a coterie of favourites that included Aaditya, who took decisions well beyond the remit of his tourism and environmen­t portfolio.

For over a week, the canvas of the battle of Maharashtr­a stretched far beyond its borders, all the way to Guwahati, with pit stops in Gujarat and Goa. Uddhav finally threw in the towel once the Supreme Court cleared the ground for a floor test—he knew the numbers were heavily stacked against the MVA. The tangled web of legal questions that seemed to offer the last source of succour to the Uddhav government became largely academic—although the contested disqualifi­cation of 16 rebel Sena MLAs, which the apex court is to referee over on July 11, may still set down some vital precedence in law for the future.

Meanwhile, in a surprising twist to the tale, a new chessboard was inaugurate­d. Just when it was generally presumed that Fadnavis would return as chief minister, the BJP named Shinde for the post. There are several reasons being attributed to the BJP strategy, top among them is that while Uddhav was out, he was certainly not going to be down for long. His emotional speech while resigning as chief minister, touching on a Thackeray being removed by his own flock, would have garnered sympathy for him among the Sena faithful and Shinde would have found it increasing­ly difficult to emerge as “the real Sena”. Making Shinde the CM also ensures that the rebels will stay with him and diminishes Uddhav’s emotional pull. It also projects the BJP as a party that is not greedy for power—an image Fadnavis has found hard to live down after his short-lived bid for a second term as CM. Having knocked out the MVA, it also opens a door to the BJP taking over the Sena’s political space ahead of 2024.

The next battle to watch will be the crucial polls to the local bodies, including the cash-rich Brihanmumb­ai Municipal Corporatio­n, its Thane and Pune variants, and dozens of others. How the split at the state level will filter down to the municipal stage is still anyone’s guess. The BJP and Sena were natural allies in the state as the Sena had stronghold­s in the major urban centres and the BJP gave it a pan-state presence. Plus, they were ideologica­lly aligned. It was Uddhav’s thirst for the top post that drove him to an “unholy alliance” with his former rivals. The BJP has exacted sweet revenge for this perfidy.

Senior Editor Kiran D. Tare, in our cover story, explores the fascinatin­g political backstory—both the immediate and the hidden—to the revolt and rise of Shinde. What we have witnessed is a dramatic moment of evolution in Maharashtr­a’s political history. For most of its 56 years of existence, the Thackerays have been at the centre of the state’s politics—whether in or out of power. This time, as an army of pawns moved over to the other side, the king was toppled and is fighting for relevance. So the shape of the coming government may depend on how events within the Sena proceed from here. Power is the best glue but, as recent events have shown, ambitions can undo it all. Now it has to be seen how the new partnershi­p with Shinde’s Sena in the lead and the BJP will play out.

 ?? ?? December 9, 2019
December 9, 2019
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