As Rebels Grow, A Circuit-Breaker Eludes Uddhav Thackeray

The sum of the missing parts was, meanwhile, growing in Assam. By 9 pm, the rebels within his party who have turned on Uddhav Thackeray, clocked 44.

As Rebels Grow, A Circuit-Breaker Eludes Uddhav Thackeray

Uddhav Thackeray has been reduced to a minority chief in the Shiv Sena.

Mumbai:

When Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray called a meeting of his party on Wednesday afternoon - online, since he has Covid - the head count stood at a scanty 13.

The sum of the missing parts was, meanwhile, growing in Assam. By 9 pm, the rebels within his party who have turned on Mr Thackeray, clocked 44. They have elected, as their leader, Eknath Shinde, who has yet to resign as a senior minister in the Maharashtra government.

It is from this unlikely location - the Radisson Blu Hotel in Guwahati - that Mr Shinde, 58, has closed his grip on the Shiv Sena, a party founded by Mr Thackeray's father. The Sena has 55 MLAs; to be recognised as the bona fide party, and not a splinter group, 37 MLAs are needed. Mr Shinde has more than that - which suggests Mr Thackeray stands to lose the lead role not just in the Maharashtra government but in his party.

Mr Shinde pulled out of Mumbai on Monday night in a luxury bus that drove into Surat. A dawn guesstimate put his group at about 18.  By noon, that had changed to 23. Since then, there has been a revision upwards nearly every few hours. The location has also been amended - from Surat, where Mr Thackeray's emissaries were able to meet with some of the rebels, to far-away Assam, much tougher to breach. 

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Eknath Shinde is yet to resign as a senior minister in the Maharashtra government.

Yesterday, a letter sent to the Governor from the pop-up camp in Assam had the signatures of 30 Sena MLAs. It claimed that Mr Shinde was their leader. Another four MLAs arrived by private plane last night. Two more jetted over this evening, again on a chartered flight.

Among those in Guwahati are ministers and MPs. The revolt is all-in. So much so that Ravindra Fatak, one of the aides trusted by Mr Thackeray to drive to Surat for negotiations, has shimmied over to Guwahati.

By noon, it was clear that Mr Thackeray had been easily bested. Sanjay Raut, speaking on his behalf, asked the MLAs in Guwahati to "return within 24 hours", offering that Mr Thackeray was open to their demand of exiting his own government. The overture was peculiar on several counts. For one, Mr Raut casually included a threat. "These MLAs who have left... they will find it difficult to return and move around in Maharashtra." For another, the suggestion that the Sena could break up with its existing allies left said allies somewhat winded. "Did Raut give this statement only to bring back the rebel MLAs of Shiv Sena? I will discuss Sanjay Raut's remarks with the Chief Minister," said Ajit Pawar, who is Deputy Chief Minister. His uncle, Sharad Pawar, heads the Nationalist Congress Party or NCP. It is he who braided together three ideologically disparate parties - the Sena, his own NCP and the Congress, to form the Maharashtra government in 2019. "We will support Uddhav Thackeray to the end," Mr Pawar said today. Which makes Mr Raut's "can do" response to the rebels an awkward pitch.

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Eknath Shinde with rebel MLAs

It is an unequivocal demand of Mr Shinde and his cohort that the Sena abort its partnership with the Congress and Mr Pawar's allies and resume its relations with the BJP. Till 2019, the Sena was the BJP's oldest partner. The split was caused over Mr Thackeray demanding that the BJP split the Chief Minister's post with his party - the five-year term, he said, was to be divided between them. Mr Thackeray said that had been agreed on before the election and the BJP was reneging on its promise.

Enter Mr Pawar. Proving that his reputation as one of the country's most intuitive and effect political negotiators is well-earned, a new alliance was formed. With three parties braided together, it had the numbers needed to form the government.

Mr Shinde's contention is this switching of sides has shrunk the Sena's commitment to Hindutva and its standing as an in-your-face champion of right-wing ideology. "The ideology of our party's leader the late Balasaheb Thackeray was to give a clean and honest government to the people of Maharashtra and also without compromising on the principle of Hindutva, which was defeated on the first day itself by aligning with the opposing ideologies", he said last night.

In a speech that was Facebook-streamed last evening, Mr Thackeray said his "resignation letter is ready" and that "if Sena MLAs say it to me, I will quit." Being power-hungry, he said, is not in his DNA. "I am the son of Balasaheb," he reminded his party, underscoring the fact that his father abstained from taking any post in multiple governments that included his party.

Acting on his words, a few hours later, his family and he moved out of the Chief Minister's official residence. Their drive to the family home, Matoshree, so far the unquestioned epicentre of Sena power, turned into an emotionally-charged journey. Workers stood along the route, chanting "we are with you". 

Mr Thackeray's new coordinates are intended to remind his party that he is Balasaheb's true successor. But his stock has never been lower. The BJP has not been coy about its peak role in the crisis, with not one but two states which are governed by it welcoming the rebels at the turnstile. This evening, a senior minister in Assam visited the Radisson configuration. The fact that the revolt is sponsored is not really up for debate.

Nor is the fact that it could not have foraged the Sena had Mr Thackeray and his team been paying attention. Mr Shinde's discontent had been brewing for a while, in part because he felt he was being overshadowed in the party. Mr Pawar has already asked how the Home Minister Dilip Walse-Patil, who is from the NCP, remained un-alerted by the state police about an entire bus-load of MLAs making an out-of-state late-night excursion.

For being unavailable to his ministers and leaders - "I have been betrayed by my own", he said - Mr Thackeray appears to have lost all his privileges. Expiation, like the revolt, will have to be all-in.

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