What really went wrong between Uddhav Thackeray and Eknath Shinde?

Updated on Jul 10, 2022 08:24 AM IST

Ahead of the crucial Supreme Court hearing on Sena’s plea over disqualifying rebel MLAs, here’s a lowdown on how the party got here

It would not be accurate to say that Shinde’s rebellion took Uddhav Thackeray by surprise
It would not be accurate to say that Shinde’s rebellion took Uddhav Thackeray by surprise
ByDhaval Kulkarni and Shailesh Gaikwad

Eknath Shinde rarely smiles. His preferred look is of a man weighed down by the serious concerns of the world. When reports surfaced that he had berated his band of Shiv Sena rebels for dancing with some abandon after he was sworn in as Maharashtra’s new chief minister, it seemed entirely credible. But even Shinde’s usually serious mien looked unduly tense on the evening of June 20th. He was terse and seemed preoccupied, say those who met him just before counting of votes for the Maharashtra legislative council polls commenced.

In hindsight, that tension is explicable. Days after the BJP outdid the MVA in the Rajya Sabha polls, it once again scored on June 20th managing to elect all five of its MLC candidates thanks to crossvoting by the Congress and the Shiv Sena. There were unconfirmed rumours that as many as 12 Sena MLAs had voted for the BJP candidates. Later that night when Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray wanted an explanation for the fiasco, most of his MLAs were incommunicado. As Uddhav’s team frantically tried to reach them, 20 Shiv Sena MLAs switched off their cells and gathered for a dinner the mayor’s bungalow in Thane. From there, they were scheduled to go to a farm house on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway where Eknath Shinde was waiting for them. The rebellion that ensued would injure the 56- year-old party at its very core.

By the time realisation dawned on Thackeray and his team that something was amiss and instructions were given to Maharashtra police to stop the fleeing MLAs, it was too late. Amid great secrecy, a convoy of cars had already carried the MLAS across the border into Gujarat where the cavalcade was provided security by Gujarat police all the way to a 5-star hotel in Surat.

“I was asked (by Uddhav Thackeray) where was I going, I said, ‘I don’t know’,” Eknath Shinde would later tell the Maharashtra Assembly about the events of the night of June 20. “Then I was asked when I would return, and again I said, ‘I don’t know.”

It would not be accurate to say that Shinde’s rebellion took Uddhav Thackeray by surprise. What did surprise him though was the number of MLAs who joined forces with Shinde. Among those who jumped ship were people thought to be die-hard Sena loyalists like Gulabrao Patil, Sandipan Bhumre, Dadaji Bhuse and Uday Samant who was known for his personal links to the Thackeray family.

What led Shinde to rebel against Thackeray?

The uneasiness between Uddhav Thackeray and Eknath Shinde had been building up for over a decade. Shinde who openly idolised his mentor Anand Dighe, often seemed restless in the party, and Thackeray never trusted him fully. It’s well known in political circles that soon after the Congress-NCP government returned to power in the state in 2009, Shinde began building bridges with leaders from both parties.

He simultaneously made every effort to gain the trust of the Thackerays too. There is some irony in the fact that he managed to do so at the time of Raj Thackeray and Narayan Rane’s rebellions against Uddhav’s leadership. In 2005, Rane’s men fought pitched battles with Shiv Sainiks on the streets of Mumbai, and put them on the backfoot. It was Shinde, the MLA from Thane, who sent in his boys as reinforcement for the Sainiks in Mumbai. When Raj Thackeray too left the party the following year and Balasaheb’s health began declining, Uddhav had to perforce lean on a chosen few in the party, and leading that pack was Eknath Shinde.

Uddhav, who had now seen several rebellions, starting with Chhagan Bhujbal’s in 1991, had an innate suspicion of grassroots leaders, especially given his own hands-off style of functioning. The 2014 assembly election was particularly difficult for the Sena as the BJP, riding high on Modi’s thumping victory in Lok Sabha just six months ago, refused to cut the Sena a favourable deal. Uddhav chose to go it alone, and Shinde was entrusted with ensuring wins for the party in Thane and Palghar districts. Sena won 63 seats on its own while BJP won 122 seats but failed to reach the 145-mark needed to form the government. The BJP went ahead with government formation regardless and Shinde, who had played a key role in getting at least a dozen MLAs elected, was made leader of the opposition in the assembly.

Within a few months Mumbai’s political circles were buzzing with the rumour that a group of 15-20 Sena MLAs was willing to defect and join the BJP government. This prompted a fresh round of talks between Uddhav and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis who clearly had the upper hand. As per Shinde’s own recent revelations, the BJP offered to make Shinde deputy CM but Uddhav rejected it. Instead, Shinde was given charge of public works (public undertakings) department, which essentially meant he handled just one corporation—Maharashtra State Roads Development Corporation (MSRDC) which was then in a bad shape financially. Fortunately for him, Fadnavis’s pet project, the Mumbai-Nagpur expressway, was to be handled by the MSRDC and that project brought Shinde close to Fadnavis.

When the MVA alliance was fashioned in 2019, Sena as the largest block was the natural party to lead the alliance. Shinde assumed the top job would be his, especially given the role he had played in bringing around independents and small party-MLAs to agree to the ideologically-odd coalition with the Congress and the NCP. But Sharad Pawar ensured that Uddhav Thackeray became CM. This, and Aaditya Thackeray’s subsequent rise in the party made Shinde realise that he had hit a glass ceiling.

In the course of the MVA’s 31-month government, Shinde saw at first hand the NCP growing at Sena’s expense, the growing interference of the Thackeray family in his ministry, the urban development department (UDD), and the increasing clout of leaders from Aaditya Thackeray’s Yuva Sena. Shinde sympathisers point to the increasing interference in the UDD by not just the Thackerays but also by the all-powerful bureaucrat Ajoy Mehta who was principal advisor in the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) after he retired as chief secretary of the state.

“There were numerous occasions when important decisions pertaining to his departments were taken by the CMO without seeking [Shinde’s] opinion,” said a key Shinde aide not wanting to be quoted. He cites the instances when changes were made to Mumbai’s development plan without consulting him, the allotting of plots for Balaji temple trust and allocation of funds from Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) for Thackeray memorial which were taken without keeping Shinde in the loop. ‘That’s when Shinde began working on his plan to win over party MLAs and split the Sena. It took him a year before everything fell in place,” says the aide.

*How did Shinde get support among Sena MLAs?

Much of Shinde’s clout with Sena MLAs can be attributed to Uddhav Thackeray’s hands-off style of functioning and his inaccessibility. This, coupled with the dominance of NCP over the day-to-day running of the MVA government, led many Shiv Sena legislators to use Shinde as their sounding board and trouble shooter.

Deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar who has a keen understanding of governance would begin his public engagements as early as 7 am while Uddhav, who was dogged by multiple health issues, largely chose to skip Mantralaya, working instead from ‘Varsha,’ the official residence of the chief minister at Malabar Hill which restricted access for many MLAs. There was simmering anger at a cabal that now surrounded Uddhav, controlling access to him especially after his spine surgery that needed a long recuperation. There was no clear chain of command and the irked Sena MLAs found a willing ear in Shinde. He was accessible and would walk the extra mile to create goodwill among his party colleagues.

Shinde used the discretionary funds at his ministry’s command to allocate funds for party MLAs, he would also ring up secretaries of other departments to cajole them to heed the demands of Sena MLAs and would take up issues with Ajit Pawar if he felt that the Dy CM was privileging NCP workers over Sena MLAs. Shinde even argued with the party leadership for the MLAs. When Sena MLA from Yavatmal, Sanjay Rathod, was asked to resign as forest minister after he was accused of being linked to the death of a young woman in Pune by suicide, Shinde advised Uddhav Thackeray that the resignation should not be forwarded to the Governor and that the CM should keep it with himself so Rathod could return to the cabinet if the probe found him clean. Uddhav ignored Shinde’s advice and sent the resignation to the Governor for approval. Rathod, who was not named in the final FIR, naturally joined ranks with Shinde when the revolt finally happened.

Similarly, in the many months when everything shuttered on account of Covid, Shinde was visible on the ground, arranging medical aid and visiting Covid wards in a PPE kit. His team from the Shiv Sena medical aid cell also worked hard to ensure that Covid patients got hospital beds or oxygen support, bolstering his image as a leader of the masses.

*At what point did BJP get involved?

The BJP had been kept out of power by the Shiv Sena and the MVA in one of India’s most consequential states, and the party was obviously not going to let this slide. The BJP recognised that the MVA template could be replicated in other states to keep it out of power and that model needed to be broken.

Maharashtra also presented a unique paradox for the BJP—this was the only state where two pro-Hindutva parties jousted for the same political space. The Shiv Sena has a wider social and political base (contrary to popular belief, it also has Maharashtrian Muslims, non-Maharashtrians and Dalits in its ranks) than the BJP, which still struggles to shed its image of being a party of upper-castes and mercantile interests.

Before the 2019 assembly elections, the BJP had also bolstered its ranks by recruits from the Congress and NCP. These legislators, who have carved out their fiefdoms in parts of the state, were upset at not being in power. The threat of their defection back to Congress and NCP was ever-present.

All of this created the perfect storm for the MVA and Eknath Shinde used the opportunity provided by the MLC polls to secretly rally the MLAs. The meetings on the pretext of strategizing for MLC elections were used to cleave the party instead. But the outreach to Fadnavis was made earlier this year. Shinde would often claim to visit his village in Satara district where the mobile signals were not good to actually meet BJP leaders. It did not help Uddhav Thackeray that he, unlike other chief ministers, stopped taking daily intelligence briefings.

When the floodgates opened and one MLA after another started leaving for Shinde’s team, Uddhav Thackeray was so enraged at this “betrayal” that he did not call and persuade the MLAs to stay back. He had simply not anticipated the extent of disaffection in the party.

The BJP central leadership which was clearly monitoring the operation in Maharashtra, it has yielded several favourable outcomes: the toppling of a government, the end, at least for now, of an ideological competitor and by unexpectedly installing Shinde as CM, it has also tempered Devendra Fadnavis’s ambitions. In Eknath Shinde, the BJP central leadership has an amenable chief minister who happens to be a Maratha—something that the party counts as a bonus. But these are still early days. Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar and Devendra Fadnavis himself are seasoned political players who don’t take setbacks kindly.

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