At 11:17 pm on Monday, the Maharashtra urban development and public works minister and influential Shiv Sena leader, Eknath Shinde, put out a tweet expressing happiness over the election of two Sena nominees in the Legislative Council elections. A couple of hours later, Shinde along with around 20 Sena MLAs, went “incommunicado”, dealing a severe blow to the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance government as well as its lead player, the Sena, which might be heading for an imminent split now.
While Shinde has always sworn allegiance to the Sena and Thackerays, there have been murmurs in recent months that he was “unhappy” over the way the party was being run and the treatment being meted out to old Sainiks like him. Over the past two years, as the Sena underwent a generational change in its leadership which saw the sidelining of its many senior leaders and the emergence of a new guard led by Aditya Thackeray, the son of party president and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
While Shinde has been in charge of two key portfolios and was the next most important Sena minister after the Thackerays, there had been a buzz that he was not getting a free run in running his departments as all their decisions were purportedly vetted by the Thackerays and their inner coterie.
A top state official said Shinde was “upset” as he was marginalised in the urban development department. As its minister, he is the chairperson of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). However, the environment minister, Aaditya Thackeray, often attended the MMRDA meetings involving its commissioner, hence Shinde did not take much interest in its affairs.
The emergence of Aaditya, who is also the Yuva Sena president, and his bid to groom the party’s youth wing leaders like Varun Sardesai also upset Shinde. Once deemed to be the tallest leader in the party after the Thackerays, the rise of younger leaders in its ranks is said to have rankled Shinde.
Over the last two years, especially since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, Shinde’s access to Matoshree, the residence of the Thackerays, was also restricted, with an impression gaining ground that the latter were not seeking his counsel like they used to earlier.
Shinde, who has been a proponent of the Sena-BJP alliance, was said to be especially upset with Uddav’s decision to join hands with the NCP and the Congress to form the MVA government. He also felt that over the last two years the party’s allies, especially the Sharad Pawar-led NCP, were hurting the Sena’s prospects.
Some MVA government officials say that there were instances in the last one year that pointed to things not being smooth between Uddhav and Shinde, who is now believed to be holed up at a hotel in Surat in the BJP-ruled Gujarat along with about 20 party MLAs.
Sources say that matters like the security cover enjoyed by Shinde and his say in police transfers were some of the factors that reflected his diminishing influence over the Uddhav-led government.
An official said Shinde enjoys “Z” category security on paper while he was keen to get “Z plus” security cover being given to the likes of Uddhav and Pawar. “However, the State Intelligence Department (SID) that takes orders from the CM provided him ‘Z’ security, a level below ‘Z plus’. It was a subtle way of pointing out the power hierarchy to him,” a source said. It was believed that Shinde was miffed over it.
Another reason for Shinde’s resentment was that he had to struggle to have a say in police postings in Thane, his home turf. Recently, the transfers of five IPS officers in and around Thane had to be stayed after the NCP minister-headed home department issued the transfer list. “While eventually Shinde’s demands were accommodated and the transfers were put on hold, the question was, why were his recommendations not taken into consideration in the first place given that he had a direct line to the CM,” the source said, adding that “While these are small issues, it did show that Shinde did not have an easy run and had to struggle within his own party.”
Sources also said that over the last one year, Uddhav hardly met any party leaders, mainly due to his health condition. “Earlier when the CM visited Mantralaya, leaders would come to meet him as everyone is allowed inside. Now with him functioning mainly from Varsha, the CM bungalow, where access is limited, not many could meet him,” the source said. “Even during Covid, citing health reasons, some bureaucrats had ensured that the CM did not meet many other leaders from the party, thereby increasing his dependancy on these bureaucrats.”
Amid simmering discontent in a Sena section against the party’s functioning for some time, Shinde was said to be in waiting and gauging public sentiments, worried that a declaration of no-confidence in the Thackerays could lead to a backlash from their party loyalists in the state.
The back-to-back setbacks suffered by the MVA in the Rajya Sabha and the Legislative Council elections in the state in just ten days proved to be the final straw that led to Shinde mounting a bid for engineering a split in the party.
(With inputs from Yogesh Naik)