Mumbai: Maharashtra’s ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government tottered on the brink of collapse on Thursday as Shiv Sena rebels appeared set to legally break away, and the party hinted for the first time that it was open to discussing its future in the coalition if the dissidents came back.
The rebels, led by state minister Eknath Shinde, swelled to the magic number of 37 as more Shiv Sena lawmakers flew from Maharashtra to Guwahati, and adopted a resolution reiterating Shinde as the Shiv Sena leader in the assembly, and the appointment of one of its own as the chief whip. The resolution, with 37 signatures, was sent late on Thursday night to the deputy speaker Narhari Zirwal and governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari.
Earlier in the day, Zirwal accepted Shiv Sena’s proposal to disqualify 12 of the rebels, including Shinde, and separately upheld the removal of Shinde as the group leader of the Sena and the nomination of Ajay Choudhari in his place — a move that the rebel resolution appeared to challenge as the procedural tussle began.
Briefly, the breakaway group appeared to have swelled to 39, before two legislators left it and voiced allegiance to the chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, who now has the support of 18 MLAs.
As the Sena haemorrhaged legislators to the rebel faction, the party said for the first time that it was willing to consider leaving the MVA – which came together in 2019 after the Sena broke its 25-year-old alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – if the dissidents came back and discussed it with chief minister Uddhav Thackeray.
“You say you are real Shiv Sainiks and will not quit the party. We are ready to consider your demand provided you come back to Mumbai within 24 hours and discuss the issue with CM Uddhav Thackeray. Your demand will be considered positively. Don’t write letters on Twitter and WhatsApp,” Sanjay Raut, who some rebels have blamed for blocking access to Thackeray, told reporters.
But the rebels rejected the offer, saying that the alliance had to end first before any discussion could begin about them coming back. Shinde has previously called the alliance “unnatural” and said it needed to end for the Sena to survive.
Shinde also released a letter by Aurangabad MLA Sanjay Shirsat in which the legislator lamented lack of access to Uddhav, a coterie of unelected leaders around him, and the oneupmanship by the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
The BJP, meanwhile, continued to play a waiting game; Shinde told the legislators supporting him that a “national party” is supporting him. It is believed that the BJP has promised to make Shinde the deputy chief minister should it form the government with his support.
MVA partners, Congress and Nationalist Congress Party, threw their weight behind an embattled Thackeray, who sought to corral public opinion to his side by moving late Wednesday night from the CM’s residence to his family home Matoshree, the seat of Sena power and the residence of party founder Balasaheb Thackeray.
“We will do all we can to save the alliance government,” said deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar.”I spoke to Uddhav Thackeray over the phone (about the political crisis),” he said.
“The fate of the MVA government will be decided in the assembly, not in Guwahati (where the rebels are camping). The MVA will prove its majority on the floor of the House,” NCP chief Sharad Pawar said.
The crisis first broke out on Monday night after the MVA suffered a setback in the legislative council polls, a week after a similar debacle in the Rajya Sabha polls. Shinde took some loyalist MLAs and drove to Surat from Mumbai. Since then, the rebels have only gained in strength as they moved to Guwahati under police protection in two states ruled by the BJP. The Sena, on the other hand, has only lost support – a total of 37 lawmakers have deserted it since Monday – even as Raut and some loyalists have said they remain unfazed.
In a late evening meeting, the rebels affirmed that Shinde was their leader and said they were unanimously giving him the authority to take decisions. Shinde also has the support of around nine independent and legislators of smaller parties. His aides said that they were likely to form a new group in the name of the late Sena chief Bal Thackeray and stake claim to his legacy and the credo of Hindutva.
But the rebels have made no move to formally declare themselves as the new party or write to governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari. It also remains unclear when they plan to leave Guwahati. If the rebels indeed have the numbers to legally break away from the Sena, they may also demand to be recognised as the original party and retain its iconic symbol. To this end, some overtures were made to senior leaders of the party and parliamentarians, many of whom have remained away from the spotlight and undecided over the past week.
Moreover, some rebels appeared to be biding their time to see the fallout of Thackeray’s emotional appeal on social media on Wednesday and his dramatic moving out of Varsha at night. Crowds of supporters thronged Matoshree on Thursday, indicating that, at least in Mumbai, the Thackeray clan continued to evoke emotional support.
The 58-year-old Shinde is a Sena strongman who rose through the ranks in the 1980s and became the de facto number two in the party cadre after the death of founder Bal Thackeray. But the rise of a new guard of more moderate faces in the party, led by Aaditya Thackeray, may have left him and other members of the old guard (who were more intimately tied with right-wing and hardline regional politics) disenchanted, especially after the Sena broke its 25-year-old alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019.
There are 288 members in the state assembly, of which one seat is vacant. The effective strength of the House, therefore, is 287. The Sena has 55 members, the NCP has 53 (of this, two people, Nawab Malik and Anil Deshmukh, are in jail, and therefore, will likely not be allowed to participate in assembly proceedings) and Congress 44. They have the support of three smaller parties and nine independent members. Together, the MVA has 166 members.
The BJP has 106 lawmakers. It is backed by two smaller parties and four independents. Together, its strength is 112.