Once a loyalist of Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray, Rahul Shewale has now joined hands with rebel Sena leader and Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde. A two-time MP from Mumbai South Central, Shewale was recognised as the Sena’s floor leader in the Lok Sabha by Speaker Om Birla last Tuesday following a request by 12 of the 19 Sena MPs in the Lower House. The 49-year-old Dalit leader, Shewale speaks to The Indian Express on the crisis and challenges facing the Sena. Excerpts:
What happened when the Sena’s Lok Sabha MPs had met Uddhav Thackeray after Eknath Shinde’s rebellion?
A day after (Shinde camp) MLAs left Mumbai, we (MPs) went to meet Uddhavji to request him to talk to the MLAs and solve their issues. He (Uddhav Thackeray) said, “If Eknath Shinde is made Chief Minister, I will be happy, but BJP won’t make him the CM. He is being deceived.” As Shinde became the CM, we told him that there could be a compromise between two sides and that we took the initiative to hold a meeting with Shinde and (senior BJP leader) Devendra Fadnavis.
Did you oppose the formation of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government in 2019?
Yes, in 2019, we were of the opinion that MVA should not happen. But our opinion was never sought. Later too, we kept telling this to him (Thackeray), but he rejected us. Shiv Sena should have supported Bills like CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) and the NRC (National Register of Citizens) proposal. Also, our work (in our constituencies) was stopped and we faced troubles in the state. We were trapped and landed nowhere. We have a responsibility towards our voters, who voted for the Sena-BJP agenda.
Was BJP ever ready for an alliance with the Sena under Uddhav Thackeray after 2019?
Fadnavisji told us that Modiji and Uddhavji had discussion regarding the alliance last June when Uddhavji visited Delhi. But the actions against 12 BJP MLAs in the state Assembly soured relations. Modiji went to Mumbai twice after that, but Uddhavji did not even go to receive him. He (Modiji) did not like this. Uddhavji also repeatedly attacked RSS, which hurt him more. This, added with things such as the growing influence of (Sharad) Pawar on him (Thackeray), his position of not hurting the Congress, the discontent within Sena MLAs and MPs over the failure to get developmental works done, resulted in the position we are in now.
The Uddhav and Shinde factions of the Sena held meetings after the Shinde camp’s rebellion, but at what point did their negotiations come to a standstill?
Despite our differences and problems, we MPs accept the leadership of Uddhavji even today. Our proposal to Shindeji was, in fact, that the leadership of Uddhavji should remain intact. But when he sent (senior Sena MP and party spokesperson) Sanjay Raut for the UPA (United Progressive Alliance led by Congress) meeting to support its candidate for the Vice President post (on July 17), all negotiations stopped.
Did you discuss your reservations about the Congress and UPA with Thackeray? What was his reaction?
Yes, we said that the 2024 elections will be important and that it will be fought on the issues of Hindutva, Ram temple, Uniform Civil Code and many more Bills important to India and Hindutva. What will our position be if we are going to oppose Modiji? We said that Rahul Gandhi cannot be an alternative (as the face of the 2024 polls). Sanjay Raut then said that Uddhavji could be the face. We would be happy if that happened, but will the scattered UPA and Opposition support him? Will the Opposition, which cannot even sit together for the President and Vice President polls support him? Who can be the face against Modiji in that election? How can we support faces that will oppose Hindutva? But he (Uddhav Thackeray) did not agree with us and we were forced to take a different stand.
You were close to the Thackerays and served as the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) standing committee chairman. Has the relationship strained now?
Of course, I am sad. I consider him (Uddhav Thackeray) my elder brother. But I took my decision after repeated attempts to convey our position. Still, we have not quit the party. We are in the Shiv Sena. I am confident that we will be together before the Lok Sabha elections.
Are you a separate group or part of the Shiv Sena? Will you contest the 2024 election as a Sena candidate?
We are the real Shiv Sena. The Lok Sabha Speaker has recognised me as our new floor leader. The party’s Lok Sabha members have the right to elect or change their group leader. We were dissatisfied with Vinayak Raut (ex-floor leader) and followed the procedure to change him.
We will contest the 2024 elections as Shiv Sena (candidates). Bow and arrow will be our symbol and BJP will be our ally. That’s final. There is no question of accepting any other party symbol. All Lok Sabha MPs have decided this. We are not traitors. Some workers may not like our decision, but soon they too will realise our position
Who do you think is responsible for the current Sena situation?
I think Uddhavji should look into its root cause and he will get an answer. He must understand that nobody has left Shiv Sena. On paper, everyone is in the Sena. Every MLA and MP has told him reasons…We were on Shiv Sampark Abhiyan this year. We prepared a report mentioning every problem that is being discussed today. Had he read the report, he would have realised everything.
Aaditya Thackeray has been travelling across the state to mobilise support. Will that help?
Had he done that before, the situation would not have arisen.
Are there chances of you becoming a Central minister?
We are expecting that the previous formula of the NDA will be followed. If that happens, the final decision will be taken by CM Eknath Shinde.
Final decision by Shinde or Thackeray?
It will be decided by Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis.
Recently, you were accused of misconduct by a woman.
There is no case or FIR against me. I have approached the court against the complaint and there is an FIR against that woman herself. The investigation has revealed that it was all planned from the Shiv Sena war room at Sena Bhavan. There will be action against those who did this.