Apart from the growing dissatisfaction over Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership, a key strand in the political drama that is playing out in Maharashtra is the years-long friendship cutting across party lines between Shiv Sena rebel leader Eknath Shinde and BJP’s former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
Highly placed sources told The Indian Express that since 2015, the two have moved from being just Cabinet colleagues to close friends. So much so, the sources said, that “in 2019, had the Shiv Sena and BJP contested the assembly elections separately, Shinde would have been BJP’s candidate from Thane constituency.”
Explaining that remark, sources said Shinde was on a BJP list of probable candidates to be tapped from the Sena before the elections. But then, unlike in 2014, the Sena and BJP decided to contest the elections as alliance partners in 2019. “As a result, Shinde remained and contested from the Sena,” sources said.
This time, with Shinde set to form a separate political group, one of the options before the BJP is to give him the Deputy Chief Minister’s post, a plum portfolio and share of power. “The party can also hand over the reins of Thane district entirely to Shinde, something which is close to his heart,” sources said.
Among the several factors that led to Shinde’s differences with the Sena leadership was the party’s reluctance to give him a “free hand in decision making in Thane”. The BJP, which is on weak turf in Thane, will look to exploit Shinde’s hold to consolidate its position in the civic polls in Mumbai’s neighbouring district, sources said.
In the previous government, Fadnavis was ready to give Shinde greater responsibilities in administration while publicly acknowledging his work.
When contacted, state BJP president Chandrakant Patil said: “Whether in ruling or opposition, the BJP has always respected leaders on merit. We are a political party and will certainly encash the differences within the Sena.”
Unlike half-a-dozen Sena, Congress and NCP leaders, who are facing investigations by Central agencies for various corruption charges, Shinde has never faced any such threat. On the contrary, he is known for his “low-profile behaviour” and “friendly nature”.
Said a close aide of Shinde: “In 2014, when the Sena was initially in the Opposition, Shinde was made Opposition leader. But when the Sena joined the government, Shinde was made Minister for the Public Works Department. He deserved a better portfolio, which was not considered by Thackeray.”
BJP sources said that if Thackeray had bargained hard at the time, the party could have considered making Shinde the Deputy CM. “But Sena did not press, maybe because it did not want to politically empower Shinde fearing it would amount to a parallel power centre,” said sources.
Five years later, after Thackeray parted ways with the BJP, a number of MLAs were hoping that Shinde would become the Chief Minister, with several banners carrying that message coming up in Thane. “But Thackeray took charge as CM and gave the important Urban Development portfolio to Shinde as compensation,” said sources.
According to sources, the BJP had sensed between 2014 and 2019 that Shinde had higher political aspirations and was feeling stifled in the Sena. In 2015, when Fadnavis announced the Rs 12,000-crore Nagpur-Mumbai Expressway, he chose Shinde to implement his pet project.
“The BJP’s role in Shinde’s revolt cannot be quantified,” said a BJP general secretary. “It happened because Shinde wished it and had the support within Sena to strike against Thackeray. We (BJP) can take the credit for our ability to build confidence in Shinde. It is not always power, post or money that work. Mass leaders like Shinde look for dignity and respect, which Fadnavis has always given.”
What remains unsaid is Shinde’s hope of securing the political future of his son Shrikant Shinde, the Sena’s Lok Sabha MP from Kalyan. At this phase of the political crisis, sources refused to rule out the possibility of Shrikant getting a berth in the Centre.