Less than 24 hours after Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray had to quit as Chief Minister of Maharashtra after a mutiny, the rebel leader, Eknath Shinde, made another move towards his endgame — taking control of the party, too.
Issuing a letter still claiming to be the party’s leader in the assembly, Mr Shinde today called a meeting of the Shiv Sena Legislature Party — technically, all the MLAs who won on the party’s bow-and-arrow symbol — at the hotel in Goa where the rebel group is staying since yesterday.
Team Thackeray has gone to the Election Commission to counter any move to take away the party name and symbol. It has already asserted that any “whip” — a binding direction — by the Shinde camp is invalid as Mr Shinde and the “Chief Whip” chosen by the rebels, Bharat Gogavale, are not the party’s official appointees.
For Mr Shinde — set to be a deputy chief minister to BJP’s Devendra Fadanvis — splitting the Sena in the assembly may be easier than claiming a right over the party as a whole.
The rebel MLAs can skirt the anti-defection law if they are two-thirds of the Shiv Sena’s strength in the assembly — something Mr Shinde has claimed in the Supreme Court too. But legal experts say this group will then have to merge with an existing party to continue as MLAs. Such a merger may be awkward for the rebels, who claim they are the “real” Shiv Sena. Already, the Thackeray camp has sought disqualification of some of these rebels — a matter that’s now in the Supreme Court.
And then, to get control of the Shiv Sena, bow-arrow and all, the rebels will have to prove they have the same majority within units of the party — a legally and politically complicated task in a party founded by Uddhav Thackeray’s father, Bal Thackeray.
That’s where it turns into a contest on the ground, among supporters of the party.
The rebels claim Bal Thackeray’s Hindutva-Maratha legacy as theirs, saying that his son moved away from it by breaking up with the BJP and aligning with the Congress and NCP.
Uddhav Thackeray has sought to counter this narrative in what turned out to be the last decision of his cabinet — renaming Aurangabad as Sambhajinagar and Osmanabad as Dharashiv. These were long-pending demands of the Shiv Sena. Even with the renaming, possible legal tangles remain, but it was a crucially timed political move by Uddhav Thackeray, coming just hours before he resigned after the Supreme Court refused to halt a vote in the assembly.
But, at its heart, the Sena isn’t just a Hindutva party. The Maratha community is its core base as a regional force.
After the Supreme Court last year cancelled the reservation in jobs and education for the Marathas, saying it exceeded the 50 per cent cap on quotas, the BJP-led central government has faced allegations that it’s not doing enough to counter the hurdle. The BJP said the state’s Sena-led Maha Vikas Aghadi government was not serious about it. With the Sena rebels now aligning with the BJP under the larger umbrella of Hindutva, the Maratha quota issue can again become a flashpoint in the state’s politics.