MAN OF FEW WORDS
Built of the same suburban grit in which he was groomed, the gruff and taciturn Shinde is emblematic of the streetside Shiv Sainik
The regal grandeur of a Bal Thackeray, the timid artist-like graces of his son Uddhav, the peshwa-in-waiting vibes of his cousin Raj, the smooth Brahmin wiles of a Devendra Fadnavis... he has none of this. Indeed, for a party like the Shiv Sena, built around charismatic speechifiers, he doesn't even speak much. Who exactly is Eknath Shinde then? Gruff, bearded, clad in slovenly white, built of the same suburban grit that groomed him, one clue can be found in the fact that he led a spectacular coup against his own party—deposing a Thackeray, no less—yet did so by refusing to leave his party. Yes, the air of a proletarian come to grips with a raw form of empowerment is unmistakable: Shinde is nothing if not emblematic of the lakhs of Shiv Sainiks who are the lifeblood of the party. Someone who, for all his streetside swag, broke into tears of humility when felicitated on his 58th birthday on February 9 on hometurf Thane.
Old associates say the best word to describe him is: stubborn. India saw that in action last week. Before that, the Thanekars knew it—he was like that through the ups and downs of personal and political life. Two years after he first got elected to the Thane Municipal Corporation in 1997, Shinde lost two of his three sons in a drowning accident in native Satara. He almost quit politics to return to farming. It was his mentor-guru, Sena strongman Anand Dighe, who dissuaded him. Dighe had picked him up in the early 1980s when he was working as a supervisor at a chemical firm, driving an autorickshaw to supplement his income.
Shinde has a pre-Sena political past too. As a Thane schoolboy, he was attracted to the RSS—old-timers recall him attending the shakha for children at Kisan Nagar. But as an assertive teenager, Shinde took a shine to the muscular ways of the Sena. Under Dighe, he became shakha pramukh in 1984, then corporator. Thence, he rose as MLA (from Kopri-Pachpakhadi, since 2004), minister and now, finally, CM. The beard he sports, and often plays with as he listens to people wordlessly for hours, is homage by imitation to the charismatic Dighe. Those listening skills will stand him in good stead now. ■
prone to go into his own shell where a vibrant earth connection is required. Bal Thackeray could afford his majestic aloofness: loyalty towards him was writ in blood. But Uddhav—even if physically infirm and in fact more so because of it—needed his own renewal of that link between leader and faithful. Instead, he trusted only a few and looked at others with suspicion. These two personality traits proved his Achilles’ heel.
Signs of what was to come were clearly visible just days before Shinde, a staunch Sainik from his salad days in politics, raised the flag of insurrection. The scene was the party’s 56th foundation day on June 19 at Mumbai’s Hotel Westin. All of the Sena’s 55 legislators had been assembled there, partly to ‘keep them united’ ahead of the legislative council election the next day. Clad in a brown full-sleeved kurta, primly buttoned up as always, Uddhav occupied the central chair on the dais. Ranged on his right, in this order, was son and environment minister Aaditya, the Sena’s Marathwada tutelar lord Diwakar Raote, and only then a sombre-looking Shinde—Thane strongman and group leader in the assembly. Uddhav spoke in pleasant tones about the party’s history. And then said: “I am sure about our victory tomorrow…we have no gaddar (traitor).” Everyone clapped in appreciation. Except Shinde. He only took off his glasses and started wiping them, as if to rub in the fact of his nonchalance towards the message.
There was a reason for Shinde’s mood. A day before, he had reportedly had a heated argument with Aaditya and party spokesperson Sanjay Raut on the quota of votes to be allocated to two Sena candidates—Amsha Padvi and Sachin Ahir—in the council election. Shinde wanted each of them to get 31 votes, against the minimum 26 required, as the party had 62 votes with it (with 55 MLAs and seven associate members). Aaditya
AS ONE REBEL PUT IT, “UDDHAVJI CHOSE TO RISK LOSING HIS OFFICIAL RESIDENCE AND 40 MLAs BUT NOT PAWAR. IT WAS DETRIMENTAL”
and Raut insisted the extra 10 votes be allocated to Congress candidates as an act of goodwill towards an ally. “Why are you trying to strengthen the Congress? Our focus should be on securing our position,” a source quotes Shinde saying. He was only being extra cautious—on June 11, Sena candidate Sanjay Pawar had lost the Rajya Sabha election because the party could not manage the requisite votes. Padvi and Ahir emerged victorious on June 20, but it soon became clear that three Sena MLAs and six associates had cross-voted for the BJP.
THE SHINDE SHINDIG
An upset Shinde reached the Mayor’s bungalow in his suburban hometown Thane in the evening, even before the last results were out. Everyone knew the beautiful five-acre complex—sprawled at the feet of the Yeoor Hills, on the banks of the scenic Upavan Lake—was Shinde’s favourite spot for schmoozing and conferring with political friends. This time, he called over 23 Sena MLAs, dined with them…and dispatched them to Surat in two mini-buses in batches of 11 and 12 respectively. Thane, the bustling city that takes off where Mumbai ends, was the place that had given the Sena its first big electoral success back in 1987, when Satish Pradhan was elected mayor. Indeed, the legend in Marathi—‘Shiv Seneche Thane, Thanyachi Shiv Sena’—explicitly spoke of this mutual sense of belonging. And now, one of its key actors had effected the biggest ever coup in the Sena from the same city.
The taciturn, action-oriented Shinde had been initiated into politics by the late Anand Dighe, once the second-most powerful party leader after Bal Thackeray. A native of Dare in
Satara district, Shinde worked as a supervisor in a chemical company and drove an autorickshaw to supplement his income to feed a family of six at that point. Under Dighe’s mentorship, his graph rose in sure and swift strokes—ultimately being elected as a Thane councillor in 1997. Dighe’s death in 2001 didn’t thwart Shinde’s rise or his entrenchment in the Thane landscape. In 2004, he was chosen as the Sena candidate from the Kopri-Pachpakhadi assembly seat within Thane, and he has represented the constituency since then. By 2014, he became a force to reckon with in Thane and Palghar districts, which collectively have 24 assembly constituencies. His fortunes saw a decisive upswing after Uddhav joined the BJP government under Devendra Fadnavis in December 2014—a moment that marked the Sena’s return to power after 15 years. Shinde’s own career had been forged during that hiatus, but now he was made minister for public works (public undertakings)—a portfolio that brought key infrastructure projects, such as the metro, highways, flyovers and bridges, under his charge.
Here, he prospered in the complex field of alliance politics as well as politics connected to the grassroots. Fadnavis’s decision to build a super expressway between his hometown Nagpur and Mumbai proved a vital turning point. Uddhav expressed stiff opposition to the project—later renamed ‘Samruddhi Mahamarg’—arguing it would be disastrous for farmers who would have to give away fertile farmlands. Fadnavis roped in Shinde to convince Uddhav. It worked. Shinde not only persuaded Uddhav, he even got him to describe the expressway as a game-changer. Next, Shinde ensured that compensation was transferred online to farmers’ accounts instantly—that softened the opposition from the ground too. The expressway thus inaugurated a bridge of close friendship between Fadnavis and Shinde as well.
Shinde was only beginning to demonstrate his capacity for productive public outreach. During the 2018 Kerala floods, he reached the waterlogged state with boxes of medicines and first-aid tools. That imparted another creative turn to his politics. Returning to Mumbai after a fortnight, he floated a medical services cell, the ‘Balasaheb Thackeray Shiv Sena Vaidyakeey Madat Kaksh’, which soon set up active branches in all of Maharashtra’s 36 districts. Just 18 months after Kerala, as the Covid-19 pandemic broke on the megapolis, this parallel structure went on to play saviour to thousands. Shinde’s team was faster and prompter than the government machinery in helping the needy, especially in rural areas, with medicines and hospital beds. With an infirm Uddhav forced into confinement at home, the contrast couldn’t have been starker. Shinde was among the few ministers who visited hospitals regularly and proactively helped in crisis management—burnishing the good samaritan image he had been cultivating, and parlaying that off creatively into
building political networks beyond Thane. “Many people were surprised when 40 MLAs backed Shinde over Uddhav. The secret lies in the medical services,” says a member of the cell.
It now transpires that Uddhav had a premonition about a possible revolt by Shinde—except he under-estimated its scale. A source close to Uddhav says the CM had started keeping tabs on Shinde’s movements. “Uddhavji had asked me and a few other people to collect information on all of Shinde’s meetings. He always had a doubt that Shinde might ditch him one day.” Shinde offered the first hint of an autonomous future on his birthday, February 9, when he took 16 Sena MLAs with him to meet Uddhav. Ostensibly, he was seeking his blessings; in reality, it was a show of strength that Uddhav failed to read.
Fadnavis was watching the goings-on with much interest. He had kept up his rapport with Shinde, inter alia sharing insights pertaining to Mumbai’s infrastructure. Sometime in early 2022, Fadnavis is believed to have approached Shinde, sussing out the possibility of him being able to lull away at least 37 MLAs—the number necessary for a split in the legislative party. This was just three months after Fadnavis had denied any poaching expedition to india today. “There is no Shinde on our side,” he had said last November, when asked if the BJP was looking at inducting “another Shinde”—Jyotiraditya Scindia, still called by his non-anglicised named ‘Shinde’ in these parts, had joined the BJP by then. But by June, after Fadnavis managed the cross-voting from Sena MLAs in the Rajya Sabha and council elections, he probably realised the time for ‘Operation Shinde’ had come.
The BJP, having burnt its fingers once with a 78-hour government in 2019, proceeded with abundant caution this time, staying in the backdrop, preferring to let the fortress be breached from within, only offering ‘logistical’ help. The decision to seek a floor test—rather than move a no-confidence motion—came on the back of intense legal scrutiny of possible repercussions. At that stage, the legal fate of the rebel MLAs was still up in the air, and the BJP wanted no egg in the face in the event of a subsequent disqualification. But the way the events unfolded sui generis proved advantageous for the party. “Shinde brought down the MVA regime on the steam of his own rebellion,” a party
senior told india today. The fact that they chose the path of an internal rebellion—always insisting that they were the real Sena, doubled the advantage. As the BJP’s master strategists plotted their moves, the best possible route to a comprehensive checkmate suggested itself. That’s what has borne fruit now.
THE ASTRAY THACKERAY
A mood altogether different from the present one of gloom had suffused the air as Uddhav took office in November 2019. His claim that the BJP ditched him on the promise of a rotating CM’s chair had found resonance, partly soothing cadre discomfort over his ideological adventurism in joining up with the NCP-Congress. When he entered the six-storeyed Mantralaya for the first time to assume charge, hundreds of employees stood agog in all the corridors, stairways and elevators to get a glimpse of the first Thackeray to ever become CM. The name itself sufficed to tap into that emotional connect the average Marathi manoos has with the family. Uddhav had, after all, steered the Sena legacy and kept it intact after Balasaheb’s death on November 17, 2012. The atmosphere was charged, yet overall the public mood seemed positive.
But the seeds of discord already resided in that moment. Loyal Sainiks partook of Uddhav’s anger against the BJP, but found it difficult to entirely digest the new tie-up with parties they had spent their lives fighting on the street. Their hands tied, frustration brewed in their minds— and Uddhav’s aloofness brought no scope for the allaying of their doubts. Indeed, his claim that it was NCP chief Sharad Pawar who made him accept the CM’s post actually widened his distance from the psychology of the grassroots worker. This is one fault-line the rebel MLAs harped on relentlessly. Deepak Kesarkar, the outgoing finance minister and MLA from a Konkan constituency who joined Shinde’s rebel camp, voiced it thus: “Uddhav joined the very people his sympathisers were fighting against. He didn’t care about the sentiments of his own people.”
And then, the inherent complications of alliance politics gradually worked their corrosive effect at two levels: one in the ideological field, owing to a stridently Hindutva party beginning to offer subtle dilutions of its brand; the other in the realm of realpolitik—a zone where someone like Pawar is always a cut above the rest. To start off, Uddhav’s troubles with the BJP were not ideological either. They had to do with stark forms of power politics. Things began to sour soon after the assembly election results in October 2019, when Uddhav took strong objection to Fadnavis’s claim that “nothing like sharing the CM’s post with the Sena” was discussed between then BJP president Amit Shah and Uddhav.
This week, Sanjay Raut claimed Uddhav had chosen Shinde as the CM, assuming the BJP would keep its promise. But that was no more than a desperate attempt to create confusion during the endgame. While what transpired between Shah and Uddhav in their one-to-one meeting lingers as a mystery, Uddhav clearly wanted the CM’s chair for himself.
Shinde was in the thick of action in another way, though. It was he who proactively brought back two NCP MLAs to Pawar when his ambitious nephew, Ajit Pawar, had briefly rebelled to form the ill-fated government with Fadnavis. That particular government lasted only 78 hours, as Pawar Sr managed to abort and reverse the rebellion—this was the moment when Fadnavis’s credibility was at its lowest. The common Sainik was as irate as the leadership, and wanted the BJP to be taught a lesson. So, when Uddhav waltzed across the ideological floor, joining hands with the Congress-NCP, the Sena cadre was actually—perhaps naively—happy for two reasons. They were back in power, and the BJP, which had proved itself unworthy of friendship, had been deposed. It smelt like sweet revenge. So there was scope to make things work.
But the perils of forming a government with Pawar—who many observers would unhesitatingly call the most untrustworthy politician from Maharashtra—were soon apparent. The NCP was only the second-largest party in the MVA—it had 53 MLAs, while the Sena initially had 56 (one death eventually trimmed that to 55). Yet, Pawar managed to secure four key portfolios for the NCP—finance, home, water resources and rural development. The partisan behaviour of the finance ministry, pocketed by Ajit Pawar, especially became a huge reason for discontent. Statistics shows almost 49 per cent of the state’s funds were spent in constituencies won by the NCP. And Congress constituencies got 33 per cent. Sena’s own areas got only a measly 17 per cent. When Sena MLAs cited this stepmotherly treatment to Uddhav, he asked then to mute their anger as his priority was to maintain cordial relations with the NCP. Ajit Pawar, on his part, claims he had no role in fund distribution. “It’s the responsibility of the minister concerned to take care of a department’s spending,” he says.
The impoverishment at the level of finances soon spread to politics. The Sena lost almost every election it fought in association with the NCP-Congress—Shrikant Deshpande for the Amravati graduate councillor’s post in 2021, and Sanjay Pawar the Rajya Sabha election this June. The most depressing moment for the cadre came when Uddhav opted to spare the Kolhapur assembly seat for the Congress. In 2019, the Congress’s Chandrakant Jadhav had won it against the Sena’s
RATHER THAN DEVELOP A CHANNEL OF NETWORKING WITH SAINIKS, UDDHAV CHOSE TO OUTSOURCE IT TO HIS SON, NEPHEW ET AL
Rajesh Kshirsagar. For the bypoll in April necessitated by Jadhav’s death, Uddhav accepted the Congress’s claim on the seat and asked Kshirsagar to campaign for the GOP. The Congress won that bypoll, Uddhav lost Kshirsagar to the Shinde camp.
Rebel MLA Sanjay Gaikwad says the NCP was actually funding his rival in his constituency Buldhana, but Uddhav chose silence. “The NCP was on a mission to systematically corner us in our own area. We had clearly told Saheb (Uddhav) to snap ties with the NCP-Congress as they were harming us.” Kesarkar echoes this. “Some 45 Sena MLAs have a direct fight either with the NCP or Congress in their constituencies,” he says. “We were fighting to save our existence. We looked to Uddhavji for backing, but he was unwilling to take a stand.”
Gulabrao Patil, another key rebel MLA, adds: “Uddhavji chose to risk losing his official residence and 40 MLAs but not Pawar. The attitude was detrimental.”
Alongside this, there was that other flaw not unknown among India’s political dynasts: the tendency to concentrate power within the family. All the rebels cite how Uddhav underlined to party workers and ministers that his inexperienced son Aaditya would call the shots in all important matters. The seniors were bound to find this frustrating. Aaditya, who became the second-most powerful person after his father, soon started calling meetings with officials outside his portfolios of tourism and environment. Shinde and others naturally saw this as an intrusion. Nor did Aaditya set up parallel lines with the rank and file to compensate for the absentee lord. Neither did it stop with Aaditya. Uddhav thought nothing of allowing another family novice, Varun Sardesai, to dominate over seniors. The 30-year-old nephew of Thackeray’s ambitious wife Rashmi, too, became a mini-power centre, reportedly with a penchant for issuing instructions on behalf of Uddhav. Almost all ministers and MLAs resented this.
The coterie of favourite officials added to the alienation of partymen and officials. Former chief secretary Ajoy Mehta was Uddhav’s Man Friday—every single file the CM cleared (or held his hand on) passed through him. And after
FADNAVIS HAD AT FIRST CHOSEN TO PLAY THE NON-PLAYING CAPTAIN, BUT THE BJP PERSUADED HIM TO BE DEPUTY CM
his retirement, Uddhav reappointed Mehta as his advisor, angering other babus. R.A. Rajeev was another IAS officer Uddhav banked on. Then commissioner of Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), it was he who advised Uddhav to shift the controversial Metro car shed from Aarey Milk Colony to Kanjurmarg. It won Uddhav praise from environmentalists, but the Centre never handed over the Kanjurmarg land to the state, and Mumbai’s Metro-3 project was stuck for two and a half years. Add to all this the Pawar stamp on proceedings, especially on major policy decisions— lifting lockdown norms, appointment of key bureaucrats and police officers, preference to sectors like sugar et al.
The sense of ideological dissonance hardly helped amid the gathering gloom. One flashpoint came on the night of April 16, 2020, in northern Konkan’s Palghar district—off the national highway leading to Ahmedabad. Two Hindu seers and their driver were lynched as they were proceeding to Gujarat for a funeral, using back roads to avoid the highway rush. It was in reality a non-political incident: tribal vigilantes had mistaken them for child kidnappers. But as videos surfaced of the local police’s inability to prevent the lynching, the BJP made political hay—painting it as official antipathy towards Hindutva. Against that backdrop, some moves by Uddhav troubled the Hindu right-wing gene that was part of the average Sainik’s mindset: granting funds to madrasas, arresting independent MLA Ravi Rana for a Hanuman Chalisa recitation event. Uddhav even questioned the RSS’s role in the freedom movement, earning more right-wing flak. “I understand Uddhavji taking potshots at the BJP. That is his politics. But I take his attack on the RSS as unwarranted,” says Gaurav Singh, an RSS member from Mumbai. Uddhav’s last-day renaming of Aurangabad as Sambhaji Nagar—something he had parried earlier—seemed more an act of belated penitence here.
Taken cumulatively, Uddhav’s method seemed to consist essentially of a retreat on several fronts. Part of the reason for Uddhav’s aloofness from the ground was health: he is a heart patient, with nine stent implants, and also had cervical spine surgery last November. A degree of caution during the pandemic was understandable. But instead of instituting an online networking system with his ministers and MLAs, he outsourced that task to his son, nephew and other trusted few, who wielded their new power in ways unaccountable to those who had built the party. No channels were made available to take feedback from lower-ranked party brass either, as he used to do in the past. And if a curious alienation marked his relations with his own party, those with his former ally saw a complete break. Uddhav chose to never have a dialogue with the BJP, avoiding all communication and banking entirely on Pawar’s negotiation skills whenever it was called for—which is often in politics. Thus it was that the inheritor of the biggest political brand in Maharashtra, and one of the biggest in India, harmed his own bequest. It cannot be said that he did no good. He left a decisive imprint on fort conservation, in environmental policy and especially in Covid management—showing a sure administrative hand as he successfully steered what could have been the world’s biggest hotspots through the century’s greatest health scare. Nor is the tempering of Hindutva violence and rhetoric, in its original homeland and in fraught times, necessarily a liability—except within a hard adherent’s worldview.
THE BATTLES AHEAD
The inevitable question after all the bruising drama is: what next? Uddhav, despite this stunning putsch, will still be a factor. But by anointing Shinde, the BJP is making it harder for Uddhav to ride back on a sympathy wave—the Sena, after all, is in power! On a tangent, it also curbs Shinde’s ability to evolve as a parallel power centre: he will be completely dependent on the BJP. Instead of finishing the Sena with a formal split—which would be a long-drawn, self-harming battle for both factions—this does it by part-cooption, partamputation. The last turn of the screw came when Fadnavis, who had said he would not formally join the government, was politely compelled by the BJP to discard any thoughts of splendid isolation and take charge as deputy CM—a role reversal none had imagined. The next axial point—elections to 20 resource-rich municipal corporations, 25 zilla parishads and 210 nagar parishads in October-November—is awaited now, for the BJP’s next move to supplant its rival across the map. The first question about Uddhav everyone was asking over the past few days—‘Will his government survive?’—has got a short, objective-type answer. No. But the greater question—‘Can the Thackeray brand survive this self-inflicted calamity and retain its hold over the party and cadre?’—will be a messy essay-type answer, to be written over months and years. And there will be a Maratha named Eknath Shinde to complicate any pat narrative. ■
—with Anilesh S. Mahajan
THE NEXT BIG CLASH BETWEEN UDDHAV AND SHINDE FOR CONTROL OF THE SHIV SENA WILL BE THE CASH-RICH BRIHANMUMBAI CORPORATION POLLS, TO BE HELD IN OCTOBER