Uddhav lost power, Pawar prestige, in a well-planned, surgically executed strike.
Octogenarian Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar was acting as the fulcrum of the anti-BJP unity effort nationwide, while in his home state the rug was pulled under the feet of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition, which had been galvanised by Pawar and sustained by his counsel. So much so that it was postulated that the “remote” of the Uddhav Thackeray-led regime was not either at Varsha (Chief Minister’s residence), or Matoshree (Thackeray home) but in Silver Oak Bungalow Number 2, Pawar’s dwelling. Maharashtra was epicentre of the quake; tremors were felt nationwide. At one go effort at Opposition unity was discredited and the brittleness of Dynast-controlled regional parties brought to relief. Axiomatically, BJP’s long shadow on national politics elongated. By choosing to support Eknath Shinde as CM, a signal has been sent to rebels elsewhere. Like Himanta Biswa Sarma in Assam, Eknath Shinde too will emerge as a beacon. The JMM-Congress coalition in Jharkhand and the residual Congress governments in Rajasthan; Chhattisgarh become vulnerable.
The suddenness of the flight of a significant group of Shiv Sena MLAs, led by a senior minister, took everyone by surprise. Pawar was in New Delhi busy nominating Yashwant Sinha as the 17-party candidate against NDA’s Droupadi Murmu. He is understood to have asked the Maharashtra Home Minister, who belonged to his NCP, as to how state intelligence was caught napping. After all, ministers have security retinue—if an interstate movement to Surat was planned, not only the police of Maharashtra, but even of Gujarat and Dadra Nagar Haveli would have to be alerted. The news broke after the MLAs had traversed 284 km to trigger operation topple.
Irony is writ large. Pawar became CM for the first time at age 38 in 1978 when he broke away with 38 Congress (Swaran) MLAs and formed Samanantar Congress. Eknath Shinde claims that he is the real Shiv Sena while crossing the floor with 39—in effect he too has created a “samanantar” (parallel) outfit. In 1978, Pawar was propped up by Janata Party and Peasants & Workers Party—his principal ally, Janata, had more seats than him. In 2022, the 106-strong BJP and 22 Independents and smaller parties have accepted the leadership of Eknath Shinde, a la Pawar in 1978.
Congress, the third element of the MVA, played soliloquy. While Pawar made effort to retrieve the burning ship, Congress’ national leadership merely sent Kamal Nath (who had failed to save his own government from defections in 2020) to hold Uddhav’s hand. AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had a stopover in Mumbai airport enroute Maldives. The MVA crisis was not deemed serious enough to merit her presence in the western metropolis to either boost the morale of her party legislators or to extend courtesy to the beleaguered Uddhav. It is significant that while bowing out of power Uddhav thanked both Pawar and Sonia Gandhi and reiterated his resolve to continue the partnership with NCP and Congress.
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani stitched together a 24-party anti-Congress National Democratic Alliance in May 1998, Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) were its oldest allies. SAD had been an ally of erstwhile Jana Sangh since 1967; Sena had entered into an alliance with BJP in 1989. SAD parted company with NDA on the farm laws issue—it has now been wiped out in Punjab—its candidate finished fifth and lost her deposit in the Sangrur Lok Sabha bypoll last week. Shiv Sena, which parted company with BJP after contesting the 2019 Vidhan Sabha election as NDA constituent and formed the Maha Vikas Aghadi government with its chief, Uddhav Thackeray at the helm, had to bow out of power due to mass disaffection among its MLAs. With Eknath Shinde claiming to be the “real” Sena, the prospect of a split looms. Eknath Shinde swears by the Bal Thackeray legacy—it remains to be seen if he will allow either Uddhav or his heir apparent, Aditya, to retain control of Dadar’s Sena Bhavan.
Addressing the Shiv Sainiks on 23 January, the 96th anniversary of Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray, Uddhav had said that the years Sena spent in alliance with BJP were “rotted” (sic). Accusing BJP of practising “politically convenient Hindutva”, Uddhav laid out a roadmap for expanding Sena outside Maharashtra and envisaged a national role for the party. Past week’s revolt saw the Sena being reduced to a Mumbai outfit—its MLAs from Konkan, Vidharbha and North Maharashtra and Marathwada and the western districts mostly having joined the rebel camp, which is now aligned with BJP. Mumbai MLAs by and large have remained loyal to the Thackerays so far.
Shiv Sena was propped by Congress officially in 2019 but the Sena-Congress bonhomie is decades old. When Sena was founded in 1966 it was widely believed that it had the proxy support of a powerful section of Congress, which wanted to rid Bombay (as Mumbai was then known) of the Leftists. Senior Congress minister Ramrao Adik was present in the Sena’s first rally. The then CM, V.P. Naik, is known to have been soft on Sena. After the 1969 Congress split, when Morarji Desai, who had been CM of the composite Bombay State (which was split into Gujarat and Maharashtra on 1 May 1960), was booed and jeered by Sena as he reached the city, Naik’s police had looked the other way. Till the 1960s, the Communists and Socialists had overwhelming grip on Bombay’s trade unions. CPI Chairman S.A. Dange, Socialist George Fernandes and Left-oriented V.K. Krishna Menon represented the metropolis in Lok Sabha. All that became past with the growth of Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena.
In his autobiography “On My Terms” (published: 2016) Sharad Pawar recalls his close relationship with Bal Thackeray. (It was this warmth which galvanised the MVA—Uddhav treated Pawar as an elder.) When Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule (who has distinguished herself as a powerful Opposition voice in Lok Sabha) contested Rajya Sabha in 2006, Shiv Sena extended support and ensured she was elected unopposed. Pawar writes: “Soon after her candidature was announced by NCP, Balasaheb called me up to offer his party’s support. ‘Sharadbabu, I have seen her since she was a knee-high girl. This is a big step in her career. My party will make sure that she goes to the Rajya Sabha unopposed.” Pawar enquired “But what about BJP?” To this, Balasaheb replied, “Oh don’t worry about Kamalabai (Kamal, Lotus, being BJP’s symbol). She will do what I say.”
BJP then was Sena’s junior partner. Sixteen years later, Balasaheb’s “Kamalabai” has caused agony and anguish to Uddhav Thackeray. And perhaps taken Pawar a few notches down from his high pedestal. The Maratha strongman has weathered many a storm—will he be able to keep MVA ticking?