New shots fired by Eknath Shinde of the Shiv Sena – his gambit against his boss, Uddhav Thackeray, became bigger and more red-hot with him claiming that it is in fact he who is now the legitimate leader of the party.
Mr Shinde made his ambitions clear by stating that of the party’s 57 MLAs, he has the support of 30 MLAs and four Independents, who are parked with him in Guwahati. Four more were on a flight to join him.
A signed letter from 34 MLAs to the Governor, dispatched late this afternoon, proclaimed Mr Shinde as their leader.
Mr Shinde said this makes illegal an emergency meeting of all MLAs which has been called this evening by Chief Minister Thackeray.
This leaves Mr Thackeray, who has Covid and has been coordinating meetings on video calls, perilously close to losing his party – or at least his role as its chief.
To qualify as the “real” Shiv Sena, Mr Shinde must have 37 MLAs with him; with that number, he can officially split the Sena.
Till two nights ago, there seemed to be little presentiment of Mr Shinde’s plan. But since then, the rebellion championed by him has moved at crushing pace – he left for Surat with a large group of MLAs in the middle of the night, relocated from there to Assam, another state governed by the BJP, and has enlisted new members in his camp.
Through this, representatives of Mr Thackeray have met with and spoken to Mr Shinde on the phone. Mr Shinde has refused to offer a compromise that does not involve the Sena in a reunion with the BJP, and ending its current alliance with the Congress and Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party or NCP.
Mr Shinde and team feel that the Sena has whittled down its commitment to Hindutva, which has diminished its brand and its standing among right-wing supporters. A reconciliation with the BJP is the need of the hour, they say. As is a Chief Minister who is far more approachable than Mr Thackeray. Within his party and his allies, there is criticism of Mr Thackeray being near-impossible to access.
The BJP has served as a crucial tugboat in pulling Mr Shinde away. Devendra Fadnavis, the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, has been instrumental in Mr Shinde’s strategy, say sources.
Mr Pawar had in recent months alerted Mr Thackeray to the growing concerns about him. Ahead of the Rajya Sabha elections earlier this month, he asked Mr Thackeray to engage more with legislators to ensure the ruling alliance came out on top. It did not. Because of cross-voting by the Sena and Congress MLAs, the BJP performed better than it should have, picking up a vital additional seat.
This was repeated two days ago in elections to the Upper House or Legislative Council. That night, Mr Thackeray reportedly upbraided Mr Shinde for cross-voting by Sena members. Mr Shinde was upset with the reprimand and decided to use the exit door.
That is one version of events, and it includes a festering resentment by Mr Shinde over the growing eminence accorded by Mr Thackeray to his son, Aaditya, and Sanjay Raut, whose progress, Mr Shinde felt, was being made at his own expense.
The other account is that Mr Shinde was upset with the Chief Minister for urging that Sena MLAs vote for the Congress to help it get two members elected, when, in fact, the Congress had just enough strength to get one seat.
There is no disputing that it is these two sets of elections, both held within the last few weeks, that led to a fully-formed conflict.