The city of Thane was close to Bal Thackeray’s heart. It was where the party first tasted electoral victory in 1967 by winning the civic polls, which would be closely followed by similar victories in Mumbai and Nashik. It was also once the fiefdom of legendary Sena leader Anand Dighe – known to run his territory free from interference from Bal Thackeray himself.
Dighe died in 2001. Today, his protégé, Eknath Shinde, is a thorn in the side of Bal Thackeray’s son Uddhav, the chief minister of Maharashtra. Shinde is the leader of the rebellion against Uddhav’s leadership that’s now roiling the Shiv Sena and threatens to bring down its Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition government.
The rebellion began on June 21, when Shinde and at least 17 MLAs purportedly cut off contact with their party. This was after some Sena MLAs were to favour the BJP in the Maharashtra Legislative Council election.
By Friday, Shinde’s rebel group – now comprising at least 37 MLAs – had at a hotel in Guwahati, Assam. They reportedly expressed unhappiness with the Sena’s alliance with the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, and such as Uddhav being “inaccessible” to the party’s rank and file. The is they plan to join hands with the BJP to “topple” the government.
On the streets of Thane, meanwhile, flex posters have appeared with photos of Bal Thackeray, Dighe and Shinde. Uddhav and his son Aaditya are conspicuous by their absence. According to Shiv Sena workers, they’re worried Uddhav has forgotten the Sena’s “true legacy”.
Posters in Thane featuring Dighe, Shinde and Bal Thackeray.
“Shiv Sainiks were not happy with the NCP-Congress alliance from the start,” said Manik Surve, 62, who is local ward chief, or shakha pramukh, of Thane’s Survewadi shakha. “Our ideology is different from theirs. We are Sainiks of Balasaheb Thackeray. We believe in Hindutva...It will be better if we ally with BJP and form the government.”
Uddhav himself was forced to make his party’s stand on Hindutva clear after Shinde’s rebellion. “Shiv Sena and Hindutva are inseparable,” he . “Hindutva is in our breath and in our blood.”
Prashant Khopkar, a Shiv Sainik in Thane, told Newslaundry the BJP is their “natural ally”. “We adjusted to this alliance because of our love and devotion for Balasaheb and Sena,” he said. “Sometimes we felt helpless when people from Congress said bad things about Veer Savarkar and other national heroes. We couldn’t properly register our protest. So, it will be better if we can ally again with BJP.”
Shinde’s family, originally from Satara, moved to Thane when he was a child. He left school after Class 11 to work as a daily wage labourer, and then found a job as an auto driver.
His association with Dighe – the man who “made Thane a stronghold of Sena”, according to one party worker – began in the early 1980s. And Dighe’s legacy lives on in Thane: you can’t travel a kilometre or two without stumbling across a photograph of Dighe.
Shiv Sainiks of Survewadi shakha.
Eknath Shinde's brother Prakash Shinde.
Anand Dighe's home, which Shinde renovated after his death. Shinde uses it as a space to meet the public when he's in town.
“He used to resolve people’s issues till 4 am,” remembered Jagdish Thorat, a senior Shiv Sena leader in the city. “His house was visited by people day and night. He used to help each and everyone.”
Shinde, as Dighe’s close aide, carries this mantle. In 1987, he became shakha pramukh of the Kisan Nagar shakha, and then corporator in the Thane Municipal Corporation in 1997. He quickly sprang from leader of the corporation to MLA to cabinet minister.
“Shindesaheb is a hardcore Shiv Sainik. After Dighesaheb’s demise, when many people were leaving Sena, he managed everything,” said Mahesh Tiwari, 33, a party worker whose uncle worked as Dighe’s driver. “He took care of everyone. We are going to support him as long as he is with the party. Even if he takes over the leadership and forms an alliance with BJP, we are with him.”
Tiwari too mourned the Sena’s alliance with the Congress-NCP. “We adjusted because our senior leaders decided to form the government with them,” he said. “If Balasaheb or Dighesaheb had been there, they would never have said yes to this alliance.”
Shiv Sainiks aside, senior leaders in Thane have also thrown their weight behind Shinde, including Naresh Mhaske, the mayor of Thane and president of the Shiv Sena in Thane district. Shinde’s brother Prakash, who lives in Thane, told Newslaundry that party differences stemmed from the fact that “people close” to Uddhav “don’t allow anyone to reach out to him”.
“But whatever the situation, Shiv Sena will be there,” he said. “Maybe the leadership will change.”
Harish Kerzarkar, a political analyst based in Thane, believes the chief minister has “lost control of Shiv Sena MLAs and even dominance in the party”.
“Legally and technically, Shinde can’t take control over it. But the power equation has changed for sure,” he said. “This is not a rebellion by anyone in particular, but a collective rebellion by all of them as there was no one to hear them out.”
Kerzarkar said the gap between Uddhav and his MLAs and cadre is widened by party leaders such as Milind Narvekar and Sanjay Raut. “These leaders are not letting Sena men reach out to their chief,” he claimed. “This has led to a discontinuation of dialogue…Undue preferences to Aaditya Thackeray over senior, experienced leaders has added to this discontent.”
But at the end of the day, several party workers said, their loyalties lie with the Shiv Sena, not individual leaders.
“Even in the worst times, we didn’t leave Sena,” said party member Manik Surve. “So, there is no question of leaving it now. Shinde saheb has never said he has left the party. On the first day, everybody was a little shocked. But now we know he is going to be with the party...We will support him.”
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