Uddhav Thackeray is in no danger of losing either his post as Chief Minister or as top boss of his party, proclaimed Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena today, even as, from the Northeast, came news that suggests the opposite.
Tucked into a Guwahati five-star hotel is Eknath Shinde, who has engendered a huge wave of revolt against Mr Thackeray. Over the last 24 hours, the rank and file of the Sena MLAs who have joined him – either physically or in letter – have crossed 40. If that bears out, Mr Thackeray is now backed by just 15 MLAs, reduced to a minority chief in the party founded and led for decades by his father, Bal Thackeray.
This morning, Mr Raut, a senior leader from Mr Thackeray’s team, said 20 of the rebel MLAs “are in touch with us. When they come to Mumbai, you will get to know, (it) will soon be revealed, in what circumstances, pressure these MLAs left us.”
It is hard to manage exact count of those who are buttressing Mr Shinde’s revolt. One Shiv Sena MLA who was parked with him has returned since to Mumbai, alleging that he was kidnapped and forced to accept injections. The claim, if not sustainable, evokes the outre drama that has engulfed the Sena this week.
Last night, hours after announcing, on Facebook, that he has no attachment to power, Mr Thackeray vacated the official residence of the Chief Minister. On camera, large suitcases were hauled out of his home and into waiting cars. He then drove with his family, including son Aaditya, who is a minister, to the storied house where his father lived. The 20-minute drive took nearly two hours, the SUV crawling to allow hundreds of Sena workers gathered along the route to glimpse their leader.
When he arrived at the family home, ‘Matoshree’, a heaving support group chanted slogans in his support and said he was a true sainik. By dropping a new pin for his location, Mr Thackeray was making good on his promise that “I will resign as Chief Minister if Sena MLAs tell me to do so to my face, I am the son of Balasaheb, I am not interested in posts.”
“Some MLAs run, and they think they are lions, but we saw a lion yesterday when Uddhav Thackeray goes to ‘Matoshree’,” said Mr Raut, alleging that Mr Shinde and those on his team are acting out of fear- specifically, fear of the Enforcement Directorate, the central agency that has launched multiple criminal investigations against different ministers of Mr Thackeray’s government. Two ministers have been jailed; a third arrest is likely soon.
“‘I support Balasaheb Thackeray and I follow Balasaheb Thackeray,’ this type of statement won’t prove you that you are a real follower of Balasaheb. They have fear of the Enforcement Directorate,” said Mr Raut, retaliating to Mr Shinde’s comments that he is the true adherent of Bal Thackeray’s ideology and principles.
It was on Monday night that Mr Shinde, who is also a minister from the Shiv Sena, drove out of Mumbai in a luxury bus, having on-boarded at least 20 MLAs. They settled into a five-star in Surat, making it clear that the BJP was co-parenting the revolt. When emissaries of Mr Thackeray were able to meet with some of the rebels, a new itinerary was quickly forged and Mr Shinde and Company flew on a chartered plane to Assam. Another four MLAs joined them last night, also arriving via a private plane. A letter dispatched by Mr Shinde to the Governor yesterday had the signatures of 30 MLAs. Today, the rebels are allegedly an over-40 club.
The marker is important because the Sena has 55 MLAs. To split the party, Mr Shinde and his supporters must add up to 37. Mr Shinde says that a reconciliation is possible only if the Sena ends its alliance with the Congress and Sharad Pawar’s NCP, and reunites with the BJP, with whom it had a nearly three-decade-long partnership till 2019.
Mr Shinde contends that the Sena’s Hindutva ideology has been diluted by its relatively-new and inorganic association with its current allies. His daring is provoked in no small part by the powers and authority of the BJP, in particular, Devendra Fadnavis, who was replaced as Chief Minister by Mr Thackeray after the state election in 2019.
Mr Shinde and Mr Fadnavis share an easy rapport; when the latter was Chief Minister and the BJP was in alliance with the Sena, it was to Mr Shinde that projects seen as high-priority were assigned by Mr Fadnavis. When the present government was formed, Mr Shinde perceived his authority as diminished, with Mr Raut and the Chief Minister’s son, Aditya, eclipsing him.
His disgruntlement found fertile ground in two recent elections, where the Sena’s legislators cross-voted for the BJP. The second of these instances took place on Monday evening. He reportedly had an exchange with Mr Thackeray about that and, hours later, set off for Surat.