On June 11, a day after the BJP managed to win three Rajya Sabha seats in Maharashtra in spite of inadequate numbers, NCP chief Sharad Pawar lauded the leadership of Devendra Fadnavis, stating that the performance was largely due to the Leader of Opposition’s ability to “win over people”.
Many saw Pawar’s statement as a swipe at Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, who has over the past 30 months of his tenure come to be seen as aloof and unapproachable, to both his Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi allies as well as own party MLAs.
This aloofness coupled with Thackeray’s propensity to communicate with his partymen and allies through a select coterie deemed to be part of his kitchen cabinet sowed the first seeds of discord in the party, which erupted on Tuesday morning into a full-scale rebellion. So blind was Thackeray to this that earlier this year he had entrusted Shinde himself to address these concerns of MLAs.
Thackeray took over as CM in 2019 without any experience in the administration or of contesting elections, having spent years in the shadow of his father Bal Thackeray.
The Covid pandemic and a spine surgery followed soon after, confining Thackeray to his home Matoshree. The recuperating CM could attend the Secretariat only after a five-month hiatus, lasting from November 2021 to April 2022. This left many Sena leaders frustrated over their inability to meet the CM, and over being forced to go through intermediaries such as Milind Narvekar or Anil Parab.
Apart from these trusted leaders, the new CM was also seen as excessively dependent on bureaucrats, particularly Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta and his successor S J Kunte.
Though Thackeray was seen as being in the forefront of the state’s Covid fight with his frequent televised addresses and his reassuring tone tackling people’s concerns, a retired additional chief secretary says officials too were left frustrated at times at the “lack of interest in administration”. “The CM would discuss his hobby of photography and wildlife sighting. I had to plead with the CM’s secretariat to get files cleared.”
Among those to publicly voice their resentment over Thackeray’s lack of accessibility were Sena allies like the Bahujan Vikash Aghadi, helmed by Hitendra Thakur. In the recent Rajya Sabha polls as well as the MLC elections held on Monday, Thakur voted against the Sena candidates. Sources point out that while veteran NCP chief Sharad Pawar made it a point to personally call allies up, Thackeray left it to his aides to rally support, including Thakur’s.
The Bahujan Vikas Aghadi leader told The Indian Express: “Not just us, many MLAs, including of the Shiv Sena, felt the CM had no time for us. Many are angry.”
The rise of Uddhav’s son Aaditya Thackeray also added to the insecurity of many senior and old-time Sainiks. Several have been sidelined to make way for members of the Yuva Sena, headed by Aaditya.
Thackeray’s frequent espousal of Maharashtra and Marahti pride did help rally a section of the cadre, but it was not sufficient to make up for the MLAs’ concerns, including on administrative neglect. Sena leaders compared this with the NCP’s running of the party, with the Pawar-led party ensuring it called the shots in the Cabinet.
The NCP’s dominance was also felt in the state budget, with nearly two dozen Sena MLAs earlier this year threatening to boycott the Budget Session of the Assembly alleging a rough deal in the allocation of development funds.
Thackeray also failed to gauge the uneasiness regarding the alliance with the Congress-NCP. Many felt the alliance was inimical to the Sena’s own political growth, with the consequent moulding into a less-strident Hindutva seen as ceding space to the BJP. Aaditya especially was seen as keen on a more moderate identity for the Sena, by taking up “progressive” causes.
If Shinde was among those seen as in favour of an alliance with the BJP instead of with the Congress and NCP, another such leader was Nandgaon MLA Suhas Kande, who is now among the rebels in Surat. Worried about his survival, Kande had taken the surprise step of moving the Bombay High Court in September last year seeking the removal of senior NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal as Nashik’s guardian minister.
In 2019, Kande had defeated Chaggan’s son Pankaj Bhujbal in Nandgaon, but he feared the seat could be given up by the Sena if the alliance with the Congress and NCP continued.
Interestingly, among the factors behind the Sena’s loss in the Rajya Sabha poll was the disqualification of Kande’s vote. Kande blamed the episode on a BJP conspiracy.