In one of the most brazen political coups in recent years, the 31-month-old unique experimental alliance of the Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party-Congress ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi crashed in 10 days flat, peaking a sneaky but defiant drama by rebels, spanning 3 states.
A group of 40 Shiv Sena MLAs — the number dubiously coinciding with a famous tale in the glorious Arabian Nights — decided to go ‘single and mingle’ with ‘external forces’ and the then Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray fell like a hapless ‘Humpty Dumpty’.
Almost like a puzzled ‘Ali Baba’, Thackeray, who was once greeted with ‘Assalamo Alaikum’ by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, rushed to bolt the stable , but it was already too late as his trusted horses had bolted across the state’s borders.
The 40 MLAs zipped off in deluxe cars, air-dashed in chartered planes and were treated to ‘super-secure’ lavish sojourns in five-star hotels – in Gujarat, Assam and Goa – before their ‘ghar-wapsi’ to Maharashtra after a fortnight.
The manner in which many of the lawmakers pulled off their nocturnal vanishing trick without arousing suspicions was both hackneyed and hilarious – slinking off with innocuous excuses of ‘tummy upset’, ‘headache’, ‘bodypains’, etc, and one plucky MLA even ‘re-escaped’ to Mumbai on a plea for a pee !
In Mumbai, the Sena went into a spin and mounted a belated damage control exercise as almost its entire legislative citadel and the MVA tumbled, Thackeray quit as CM, in 24 hours a new government propped up by the Bharatiya Janata Party was formed with Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis.
The entire rebellion, as it turned out later, bloomed with the blessings of the BJP without waving its usual ‘Operation Lotus’ flag, and it remained in denial mode till the two-member regime was sworn-in.
With the embarrassing failure of a similar dawn operation that failed to germinate in late November 2019, when Fadnavis took oath as CM and the NCP’s Ajit Pawar as Deputy CM, but falling in barely 80 hours – probably fresh in the mind, in June 2022, the BJP took pains to maintain ‘a safe distance’ up to the end after the MVA was dumped into the bin, before sounding the ‘Horn, OK Please’ triumphantly.
Both sides headed by Shinde and Fadnavis even kept their proposed power-sharing formula a top secret — and it was revealed only a few hours before the oath taking ceremony when the BJP shouted, ‘Open Sesame’ before a boggled media.
And the doors of power were opened for Shinde as the new surprise CM, and seconds prior to the swearing-in, Fadnavis was squeezed in at the last second as the ‘second-in-chief’ to the CM, shocking the national and state polity.
As a subsequent legal tangle unfolded, it transpired that the BJP offered the plum post to Shinde to dilute its ‘power-hungry’ image, plus blame the ‘rebels group’ in case it failed to limp for long, and – as Sharad Pawar and Sanjay Raut predict – pave the way for mid-term poll in a few months.
Initially flustered, the Sena quickly went into offensive mode, took certain pre-emptive steps, but also dropped hints of rapprochement with the rebels as the party continued to split and leak incessantly.
Undeterred, the rebels group kept chanting that it is the ‘real Shiv Sena’, unnerving Thackeray and his loyal band of around 15 MLAs and some 16 MPs who are still sticking together.
The 40-strong group, eyeing the upcoming ‘ministerial treasures’ on the treasury side — besides lapsing into a peaceful ‘sleep mode’ with the invisible hanging swords of Central probe agencies off their heads — became bolder.
As a senior Sena leader rued, how – in just a fortnight – those who lacked the guts to even glance at the Thackerays, are now freely snapping, leering, jeering, and ‘ordering’ the Sena to dump the NCP-Congress and embrace its ‘natural saffron ally’ or prepare to be pushed to the political pavements
Down but not out, a determined Thackeray & Co. hit back with several legal cases, pending in the Supreme Court, cautioned Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari against rewarding the rebel MLAs with ministries or offices of profit as their fate is hanging in the balance amid other remedies to safeguard the party apparatus and its assets like the Tiger logo and Bow & Arrow poll symbol, etc.
On his part, Thackeray has remained dignified and statesmanlike throughout the recent tumult and during his short-lived tenure as CM, with his image intact, despite multiple political assaults.
These included facing perpetually long-faced allies, an ultra-aggressive Opposition BJP, a hostile Raj Bhavan, hounding central investigative agencies, aloof bureaucracy, a large part of his term spent battling the corona pandemic and its huge fallout, disgruntled party MLAs, and finally the proverbial ‘stab in the back’ that pulled the rug – and the CM’s chair – from under his feet.
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)