Opinion: Has It Turned Into Fadnavis vs Shinde Already? Telling Signs

The egg on the faces of Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and his Deputy, Devendra Fadnavis, is worth Rs 1.79 lakh crore. That is the cumulative value of the four deals that Maharashtra has lost to Gujarat, two of them since the Shinde-Fadnavis combo took charge of the state.

The losses: the Vedanta Foxconn chip-making project, a bulk drug-manufacturing project, a medical park and, as of this week, a Tata-Airbus plan that will manufacture military transport planes.

The timing is portentous. Gujarat is due to vote for its next government and the announcement of securing some of the biggest investments in the country will pump up the BJP's campaign to demolish Arvind Kejriwal in the Prime Minister's home state.

Maharashtra, meanwhile, has to lick its wounds. The three main opposition parties there - whose joint government was dismantled by Shinde and Fadnavis - say the couple must explain what allows them to sit by and watch as Mumbai comes within spitting distance of losing its status as the financial capital. Maharashtra is India's second-most industrialised state (behind Tamil Nadu). But it is Gujarat that really seems to be doing business.

Shinde and leaders from the BJP in Maharashtra are trying to placate those within their party as well as voters. But the Shinde-BJP government seems to be a little unsteady on its feet.

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Tata and Airbus will make the C295 plane in Gujarat.

I spoke to several leaders from the Shiv Sena (the Uddhav Thackeray faction), the Shinde faction, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the BJP and the Congress for this column.

Including union ministers, BJP representatives have no difference with this opinion: "Gujarati favouritism at the cost of Maharashtra must stop or we will face a grave crisis of Maharashtrian anger, first in the long-delayed Mumbai civic polls and then in the 2024 Lok Sabha and assembly elections". Remember that Nitin Gadkari, Union Minister, had made a huge pitch for the Tata project to come to Nagpur, his constituency, after Vedanta Foxconn exited Maharashtra for Gujarat. Despite the Gadkari hard scrabble, which included letters to Tata Sons Chairperson N Chandrasekaran, the Gujarat election trumped the Nagpur pitch.

The anger within Team Thackeray is palpable. A close Thackeray aide said, "The BJP and its central leaders should thank their lucky stars that Uddhav-ji is mild (mannered); if Balasaheb had been here, he would have made sure that 'street strength' ensured that those favouring Gujarat could not stay in Mumbai."

Mild or not, Thackeray is capitalising on the narrative of Gujarat being the favourite of the centre at the expense of Maharashtra. A competitive sub-regional sentiment has always existed between the two states, and the Sena and the NCP, both parties that have positioned themselves as "Maratha sons of the soil", are now seeding the narrative of Maharashtra and the "manoos" being fooled.

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Uddhav Thackeray has been fighting court battles against the Eknath Shinde faction over who represents the real Shiv Sena

Thackeray also knows that he has the opportunity to build on the perception of him as a man betrayed by his own party and forced out of government. He was a popular Chief Minister whose fireside chats during the pandemic when it was at its highest intensity did much to endear him to people. Most Maharashtra leaders say that the sympathy for him would have been showcased in the Andheri by-election and that the BJP yanked its candidate because it did not want to risk a loss ahead of the crucial elections for the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai.

The Prime Minister and senior leaders of the BJP emphasise during every state election that voters will benefit from choosing their party so that the central and state leadership can work in effectual tandem. But the "double engine" that is promised is in fact traitorous, alleged Aditya Thackeray, pointing out that the state government in Maharashtra is now being routinely trampled on by a centre for whom Gujarat is first priority.

The Shinde government is in a crisis with a total lack of trust between the two allies. Fadnavis is impatient that the Shinde faction merge with the BJP so that he can call the shots. Shinde is paranoid about the BJP annexing his party and reducing him to a bystander in his own government. Sources tell me that 10 days ago, Shinde wanted to sequester all his MLAs at a resort in Rajasthan. Many of his MLAs claim that officials take orders from Fadnavis, and don't allow them to do any work in their ministries and constituencies.

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When Rahul Gandhi's 'Bharat Jodo Yatra' enters Maharashtra, leaders of the Shiv Sena and the NCP are also expected to walk with him in a show of unity

A senior NCP leader told me that Shinde has been calling at least one top billionaire industrialist regularly in the hope of landing a mega project for Maharashtra to reverse at least part of the recent losses.

Meanwhile, a group of Shinde MLAs are in talks with Uddhav Thackeray to return to his team because they feel the Shinde-BJP alliance is coming unglued. Fadnavis had assured the central BJP that the Congress and NCP would dump Thackeray when he lost office, but this has not happened. In fact, when Rahul Gandhi's "Bharat Jodo Yatra" enters Maharashtra, the three allies are expected to have their senior leaders join his walk in a show of unity.

For Shinde and Fadnavis, meanwhile, the show of unity seems to have fizzled out within four months of taking charge of Maharashtra. The BJP is practised at steadying its governments when they show signs of wobbling. The healing touch it will exercise in this case is not likely to be gentle for Shinde. The election may be in Gujarat, but Maharashtra is hyperactive as well.

(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.

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