The BJP does not seem content with engineering the fall of the Uddhav Thackeray-led government in Maharashtra. By making Eknath Shinde, the man who led the rebellion, the Chief Minister, the BJP is intent on ensuring that the Shinde-led faction takes hold of the parent party and finishes off Uddhav Thackeray's attempts to resurrect himself politically. Uddhav Thackeray's task just got a lot tougher.
On the face of it, in making Eknath Shinde the Chief Minister instead of Devendra Fadnavis, despite the fact that the BJP has 120 MLAs and is by far the larger party in the state legislature, shows that it wants to occupy the moral high ground. The BJP appears to be working to a larger game plan. Despite the fact that the majority of MLAs walked out on the Thackerays, the rank and file and most office-bearers continue to be with them for now. The BJP wants to ensure that Eknath Shinde as Chief Minister wrests control of the Sena organization.
With Eknath Shinde as Chief Minister, the BJP also hopes to enable him in projecting himself as the true torch-bearer of Balasaheb Thackeray. One of the main charges against Uddhav Thackeray is that he betrayed the hardline Hindutva that was the hallmark of the Sena under his father. The BJP will nudge the new Chief Minister to adopt a hardline approach. An Eknath Shinde beholden to the BJP for making him the Chief Minister and dependent on its support to continue in office will be amenable to do the BJP's bidding. The BJP played second fiddle to the Sena in Maharashtra as long as Balasaheb Thackeray was alive, and has since his demise emerged from the Sena's shadow to position itself as the main Hindutva party in the state.
The BJP was on the lookout for somebody who could help it undercut the Sena in Maharashtra. Initially, Raj Thackeray was an option, but was quickly discarded. They zeroed in on Eknath Shinde. He was not in favor of the tie-up with the MVA to begin with; he also believed he should have been the Chief Minister instead of Uddhav Thackeray and found it difficult to stomach being overtaken in importance by Aaditya Thackeray. Sensing an opening, Fadnavis got to work. Slowly, carefully and efficiently, he worked on Shinde, fuelling his ambitions and massaging his bruised ego.
Uddhav Thackeray underwent two surgeries last November because of which he could not meet people personally. His absence from the field worked to the duo's advantage. He sought to make up for that by doing video conferences and WhatsApp calls, but that clearly was not enough. The Thackerays realized that something was amiss and sought to appease Eknath Shinde by putting him in charge of some of the most coveted departments in the government. But Shinde clearly had his sights set much higher.
The immediate challenge before Uddhav Thackeray are the prestigious BMC elections likely to be held in September. The BMC is currently ruled by the Sena, but the BJP and Shinde Sena will make an all-out effort to end that. For now, the MVA has indicated that it will band together. If that alliance holds, the BMC polls could be a tight contest.
Of some solace to Uddhav Thackeray must be the fact that his short-lived reign as the Maharashtra Chief Minister has come in for wholesome praise from ordinary citizens, some of whom have never supported or voted for the Sena in the past. Much of this is because of the dignity and grace with which he conducted himself while in power, his remarkable handling of the pandemic, his firm handling of the attempts to ignite communal passions in the state on the Azaan and Hanuman Chalisa issue, all while heading a multi-party coalition government, a difficult task even at the best of times.
Ironically, the very qualities that endeared him to ordinary citizens have been held against him by the Eknath Shinde and the other party MLAs who have rebelled against him. Because he chose to take everybody along, kept some of the contentious issues on the back burner and sought to follow a moderate line, he has been accused of deviating from the party's core Hindutva ideology. He surprised his allies and even the smaller constituents of his government by giving everybody a freehand, but in doing so, he now stands accused of pandering to allies.
(The writer is a senior journalist and political analyst.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.