Game Of Thrones: Fall Of The Maharashtra Government Was Two Years In The Making

Ever since Shiv Sena abandoned its pre-poll alliance to form a government with Congress and NCP, the BJP has been eyeing to topple it and grab India's financial capital

Game Of Thrones: Fall Of The Maharashtra Government Was Two Years In The Making

The true and full story of ‘Ope­ra­t­ion Dou­ble Cross’ in Maharashtra may never be known. But bits and pieces are out and many of the dots can be connected. The operation was in the wor­ks for over two years. It was meticulously pla­n­ned, and involved the Enforcement Dire­ctorate, the Inte­l­ligence Bureau and the state unit of the Bhara­t­i­ya Janata Party, ring-maste­red by the wily Dev­e­ndra Fadnavis.

Eknath Shinde was spotted quite early. But till he gave BJP the confidence that he could mobilise 37 MLAs, the operation was not taken to a climax. The number 37 was crucial as only with that many MLAs could they overcome the anti-­defe­ction law. There were some legislators with weak nerves. But once the ED came into play, they could be brought on board easily. There were half-a-dozen “rebel” MLAs who were rai­ded by the ED and put under income tax probe. They now feel “relieved” the “persecution” is over. It was enough for others to get “anticipatory bail” of sorts from possible raids and arre­sts! No wonder that the def­ectors-­cum-­rebels swelled from around 17 to 39 in just 48 hours.

So, has the Shiv Sena imploded beyond resu­rr­e­ction? Or would Uddhav Thackeray give up his shyness and inertia and rise like a phoenix? If Udd­hav fails, can Shi­nde take over Balasaheb’s mantle? Will the Shinde fact­ion be the “new Shiv Sena”? The legislative majority does not guarantee them the symbol and official party status. The majority—i.e., var­ious shakhas and sha­k­ha­­p­ramukhs—have to declare a clear choice. If Shinde can manage that, then clearly his faction will emerge as the real Shiv Sena, get the party symbol and formal status. Going by past experience, the matter will go to court and the symbol will be frozen, leaving the status of the factions hanging. Their strengths will be revealed in the Mum­­­bai and Thane municipal electi­ons. If Uddhav wins many more seats than Shinde in Mum­bai, his team will carry the “advantage”.

The Sena completed 56 volatile and vibrant years in June 2022. Now, for the first time, 10 years after Balasaheb’s passing away, it is facing an existential crisis. In fact, Uddhav, and lately even Aditya’s political careers, appear to have entered a chakravyuha.

Both are relatively young. Udd­hav is 62 and Aaditya, 32. Uddhav can yet car­ve out a significant political status, as the city and state he belongs to have the right ecosystem for his rise. Aaditya, who made his mark in his brief stint as the environment minister, showed remarkable understa­n­ding of the climate crisis. By nat­ure, both are sober, soft-spoken and do not show any signs of recklessn­ess. The Sena was known for recklessness and street fig­hts. In that sense, they did not fit into the conventional Sena mou­ld. In fact, it became famous for its lumpenism and fiery spe­e­ches of Balasaheb (and later, of Udd­h­av’s cousin Raj), who draws cro­wds because of this trait.

It won’t be easy for Udd­hav or Shinde to leave their old clothes. Neither can the matter be settled by the EC or the courts, leaving ele­cti­ons as the field where it is likely to be settled.

Perhaps, Uddhav’s attempt at transforming that image has bro­ught upon him this predicament. Many Sainiks are essenti­ally lumpens, ready for mindless violence and unco­uth language. However, the Sena is itself cau­ght between an aspirat­ion for stable political power and middle-class res­p­e­ctability, and the habit of lumpenism.

Followers of the rebels are from the old sch­ool, which got its stre­n­gth from muscle power, extortion and community mobilisation by sol­ving the people’s day-to-day problems. Effe­c­t­i­vely, the Sena is caught in an “image trap”.

The BJP, on the other hand, had more respe­c­tability and acceptance among the middle class. What they lacked was lumpen pow­er. So the alliance was supposedly betw­een the unc­outh and the (superficially) respectable.

The question now is: will the new governm­ent survive? It has already been raised by Sha­rad Pawar. It is the responsibility of the BJP to see the new government through. Its high co­m­mand could decide to hold the Mahara­s­h­tra assembly elections along with the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, i.e., six months ahead of sche­dule. This was done in 1999, on the advice of Pra­mod Mahajan. Then, the gamble had fai­led. Though BJP won at the Centre, it lost the sta­te. The scenario is different today.

What role can Raj Thackeray play? He can draw more crowds than any other leader of the BJP or either Sena faction. But it appears that people attend his rallies more for political entertainment than to vote for his party. He can be a good campaigner for the Fadnavis-Shinde team, but for that he will extract his price in seats for his MNS, reducing the number of seats for Shinde’s faction.

So why was the Modi-Shah team desperate to capture Mumbai and Maharashtra? It sho­uld be noted that despite winning a majority in the Lok Sabha in 2019, the BJP had lost all four metros. Delhi was with Kejriwal, Calcutta with Mam­ata, Chennai with Stalin and Mum­bai with Uddhav! Metros are not only sources of funding, they also provide image and status. Mumbai is the commercial capital and Guja­ratis control much of its business and stock market. How can the two leading Gujarati bosses afford that anomaly?

Mumbai couldn’t be surrendered to Uddhav, as the Sena chief had turned into a strident critic of Modi and Shah, and the latter did not want such a chief minister to be in charge of India’s commercial capital. The plan to oust him was initiated two yea­rs ago. But it was accelerated on a war-foo­t­ing on the eve of the Mum­bai-Thane corpor­a­tion elections.

With Uddhav turning into the darling of the cosmopolitan middle-class, the BJP felt he was taking away their base. Uddhav is upper caste, urbane, educated at J.J. School of Arts and a well-known art photographer. Mild-mannered Aaditya, a history graduate from the elite St. Xavier’s College, has impressed the English TV media. Both of them have acquired an image completely different from what the country identified the Sena with. Now, the battle for the “real” Sena is between the lumpen group and the still-evolving soph­isticated one. It won’t be easy for either Udd­hav or Shinde to abandon their old wardrobes. Neither can the matter be settled by the Ele­c­t­ion Commis­s­ion or the courts, leaving ele­cti­ons as the field where it is likely to be settled. While Shinde will win Tha­ne hands down, it won’t be easy for him to marginalise Uddhav there. What is certain is that the Sena vote will split in Mumbai. But the rest of the theatre will only be staged in 2024.


(This appeared in the print edition as "Game of Thrones")

(Views expressed are personal)

Kumar Ketkar is a veteran journalist and a Rajya Sabha member