Uddhav Thackeray’s ‘ready to resign’ gauntlet to rebels a masterstroke

An emotional FB address by Uddhav Thackeray on the heels of Shiv Sena MLA complaining of being abducted to Surat and another detailing how he escaped from Gujarat keeping pot boiling in Maharashtra

Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray (IANS Photo)
Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray (IANS Photo)

Sujata Anandan

In his Facebook address on Wednesday afternoon Uddhav Thackeray delivered a master class on politics to his own MLAs and to the BJP. He threw down the gauntlet to the rebel MLAs and challenged them to return and tell him to his face to resign from the post of chief minister.

He pitched his appeal with tremendous èlan. It was a virtual coup de tete (head-butt) as he said, "I am hurt that the opposition to me came not from Congress or NCP but from my own MLAs. I will not remain if even one MLA wants me to go. I will move immediately from Varsha (CM's official residence) to Matoshree (his private residence)."

That was guaranteed to pull at the heartstrings of Shiv Sainiks, considering they always react emotionally. Predictably, the reactions have been highly emotional. Several party workers, including women, have raged against Shinde for his disloyalty and vowed that they would “teach him a lesson" once he is back. As people in political circles have been saying throughout the day, ‘ it might be easy to take MLAs out of Mumbai but far more difficult to get them back”.

While MLAs allegedly siding with Eknath Shinde against Uddhav Thackeray were not kidnapped, facts emerging now point to subterfuge in luring them, which is why possibly Uddhav had no clue about the imminent rebellion. And also, why more than one MLA in Shinde’s camp is desperately seeking to return to the Shiv Sena fold.

According to sources, soon after the counting of votes in the Vidhan Parishad elections, Shinde extended an invitation to dinner – sneha bhojan – to these MLAs at his home in Thane. When they arrived there, they were all herded into a bus and driven to Surat, without any clue where they were headed. One MLA, Nitin Deshmukh, who tried to escape the next day, was apprehended by the Gujarat police and brought back to the hotel, where, reports suggest, he was roughed up. Now his wife has registered a FIR with the Maharashtra police alleging that her husband has been kidnapped.

A second MLA, Kailash Patil, was more successful in making an escape. He pretended he needed to visit a toilet, found a way out, hitched a pillion ride from a random motorcyclist outside the hotel, then hitch-hiked on a truck to Bombay which dropped him off on the outskirts. From there, he claimed, he walked several miles to reach Uddhav Thackeray and relate his harrowing tale.

Perhaps that is the reason why the Shiv Sena has decided not to take any decision about the situation until the MLAs are all back in Mumbai. There is much hope in the Shiv Sena camp looking at the groundswell of support at the grassroots for Uddhav and his party. In highly emotional reactions, several party workers, including women, raged against Shinde for his disloyalty, avowed that they will not tolerate the rebellion and “will teach him a lesson" once he is back.

In Shiv Sena parlance, that could be anything from being roughed up, to blackening of the face, to causing grievous injury or even murder.

Shinde’s ‘godfather’ in Thane district was Anand Dighe, a terror in the area during his lifetime and a much-feared leader who allegedly cut up a party corporator named Shridhar Khopkar into pieces and buried them beside railway tracks after kidnapping him from his home at night, under the pretext of, you guessed it, taking him out to dinner.

This ‘punishment’ was meted out to Khopkar for cross-voting in favour of the Congress in the elections for Thane Municipal Corporation standing committee.

Dighe was arrested and spent some time behind bars, but was never convicted. Soon, he became too hot to handle for even Bal Thackeray, and was sidelined. But when he died in hospital following a road accident, his supporters ransacked his premises and burnt it down.

Shinde does not have the kind of support or presence in the Shiv Sena as Dighe did. Nonetheless, he was close to Uddhav Thackeray who trusted him implicitly, and now the disloyalty to his party leader is not going down well with the lower ranks.

The BJP has moved all the MLAs to Guwahati to get them as far away from Uddhav Thackeray's influence as possible, conscious of how the Nationalist Congress Party had launched a daring rescue of its four MLAs who had been ferried away to Gurgaon in November 2019 and rushed them to Delhi and thence to Mumbai. These NCP MLAs were under the impression that their flight had Sharad Pawar's sanction and a similar modus operandi has been used with the Sena MOAs who believed Uddhav too might be present at the dinner.

With Uddhav's emissaries already having made contact with Shinde and others in Surat, the dissident camp is evidently afraid that most of the MLAs, who were almost dragged to the airport by the police to board a flight to Guwahati, might have second thoughts and make good their escape back to Maharashtra.

But with Uddhav now quarantined after suddenly testing Covid positive, a waiting game has begun and the party is giving ample time to its reluctant MLAs to return. Questions are now being asked if the BJP might have overestimated its appeal and, given the ground support for Uddhav who is drawing additional sympathy for coming down with Covid, they might not be able to pull off what they had intended.

In any case, it seems unlikely the BJP will form a government in Maharashtra with a new chief minister. They might prefer the route of President's Rule until the next assembly elections.

Before that, however, Maharashtra will see a series of civic elections which will be a test of strength for all political parties.

The coup is by no means done and dusted and the Shiv Sena has much artillery on the ground that the BJP has to contend with unlike in other states where they have mounted such operations and got away without consequences.

(The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald, Mumbai)

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