The Shiv Sena said on Wednesday it would not support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the crucial trust vote in the Maharashtra assembly, but left a window open by withdrawing its candidate for the speaker's post.
Sena leader Ramdas Kadam told reporters that party chief Uddhav Thackeray had directed legislators to sit in the opposition and vote against the BJP.
Despite Sena's the Fadnavis government is still expected to sail through with support from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) which has offered unconditional support.
NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal said his party wanted a stable government, but did not clarify whether his party will vote in favour of the BJP or abstain from voting - both moves will help chief minister Devendra Fadnavis win the floor test.
Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray interacts with media in Mumbai. (Satish Bate/HT photo)
In the 288-member assembly, the BJP has 121 MLAs - down from 122 after Mukhed MLA Govind Rathod died of a heart attack on October 26. While the Shiv Sena has 63, the Congress has 42 and the NCP has 41 legislators.
Sources close to Fadnavis told HT the CM was sitting pretty with 138 MLAs - only seven short of a majority in the 288-member house.
Apart from its 121 MLAs, the BJP is believed have the support of one legislator from ally Rashtriya Samaj Paksha, seven independents, three MLAs from the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, three from the Peasants and Workers' Party and three from other small parties, insiders said.
Reports said the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) will support the BJP government. Though the MNS has just one MLA, its support to the BJP would be symbolically significant as the party is headed by Uddhav's estranged cousin, Raj Thackeray.
Amid the uncertainty, the BJP, however, passed the first test of the day when its candidate for the speaker's post, Haribhau Bagade, was elected unopposed.
The Congress and the Shiv Sena both withdrew their candidates from the contest ahead of voting, apparently after being requested by the BJP.
But, the second and big challenge ahead of BJP might be marred by the Sena's stand. Even if it wins the trust vote, Sena legislators in the opposition bench might spell trouble for the Fadnavis government.
The Sena has occupied the opposition benches in a special three-day assembly session - in line with Uddhav's threat that his party will oppose the BJP if it accepts the NCP's support.
Sena's Kadam said his party won't mortgage "self-respect", and will "vote against the government".
He, however, added the Sena leadership was still in talks with the BJP, indicating there could be an eleventh hour breakthrough in discussions over power-sharing deal in the state.
Talks between the two parties, which parted ways ahead of the October elections after 25 years of bonhomie following differences over sharing of seats, have remained topsy-turvy so far.
In mouthpiece Saamna, Sena lashed out at both the BJP and the NCP on Wednesday.
"CM Fadnavis and allies will ensure the government's survival. We have no doubt about that. But the important and real question is: whose tune will you dance to just to ensure the government's survival?"
Taking the fight forward, BJP leader Sudhir Mungantiwar said, "Shiv Sena's decision (to not support the BJP) is purely to benefit their party. It's not in the interests of Maharashtra."
However, it is believed the Sena would be the BJP's first choice for an ally because of their matching ideologies and experience of working together.
But, Sena's reported demand for 10-12 ministerial berths with key portfolios and the post of deputy chief minister or home minister is vehemently opposed by the BJP leadership.
Meanwhile, some Sena leaders claimed the BJP's top brass in Delhi, including finance minister Arun Jaitley, were in constant touch with their leaders on Tuesday night and this may result in a positive outcome at the last moment.