Like all vanishing acts, it's all the more astounding because of its suddenness.
Eknath Shinde, Shiv Sena minister, left Mumbai around 1.30 am along with 21 MLAs for Surat, the citadel of the BJP. The rebel MLAs travelled with vada pao snack packs.
As the Maharashtra government tries to stare down its biggest crisis yet, its self-preservation instincts are questionable. Did Mumbai Police which reports to Home Minister Dilip Walse-Patil (of the NCP), a prominent Sharad Pawar loyalist, miss the en masse movement of the MLAs, all of whom have security details provided by Mumbai police? It is unlikely Patil would have been unaware of the movement of the MLAs.
Contact has been establishednearly 12 hours later, the Sena announced at around 12.30 pm today.
The role in the current crisis of Sharad Pawar is an undeniable headline. After all, it was he who assembled the Maharashtra government out of an unlikely partnership of the Sena, the Congress and his own NCP, pulling Uddhav Thackeray away from his 25-year-long "Yuti" (alliance) with the BJP. Sharad Pawar, at the best of the times, is opaque and a hard political read. But what you can take as a given is that even if the government collapse, Sharad Pawar will remain the most powerful and indispensable political player from and in Maharashtra. No party can form the government without him. Giving flex and core to his political capital is something Sharad Pawar is always in the process of conveying.
The chronology of the crisis is easy enough to piece together. 10 days ago, cross-voting by Sena and Congress members in the Rajya Sabha elections gave the BJP one more seat than it should have won. Yesterday, cross-voting took place again in key elections for the Legislative Council. Eknath Shinde was reportedly reprimanded last night by the usually soft-spoken Uddhav Thackeray. (12 Sena MLAs had voted for the BJP). The Sena was also unable to get the support of independent MLAs and the smaller parties. The conversation about the debacle was the last contact Ekanth Shinde had with the Chief Minister.
Sharad Pawar is in Delhi to serve as a key liaison in the Opposition's plan to contest the Presidential election. The master of mixed signals said last week that he would not be the Opposition's candidate, stating that he wants to remain in active politics. His allies could perhaps have taken that as a sign of something big in the mix.
The 'Operation Kamal' now unfolding in Maharashtra proves the go-getter credentials of Devendra Fadnavis, the former Maharashtra Chief Minister, who reportedly teamed with union minister Narayan Rane to build the crisis.
The latter was the first to sense that Eknath Shinde was upset at the growing primacy accorded to Sanjay Raut, Sena MP, by Uddhav Thackeray. Shinde, who is a mass leader from Thane and used to choreograph the biggest Sena events, felt slighted at the new order of precedence in the party and the government. Sources say that he had no problem with the increasing prominence of the Chief Minister's son, Aaditya, but resented Sanjay Raut. Sources say Narayan Rane and Devendra Fadnavis had a joint meeting with Home Minister who decreed that 'Operation Kamal' in this case should be low-key without involving charter flights to ferry the MLAs, a signature BJP move.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.