"The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will knock off Eknath Shinde. The 40 MLAs that went with him, the BJP will break away 20 towards itself and those 20 MLAs will join the BJP," claimed Shiv Sena leader (Uddhav Thackeray faction) Sushma Andhare in an explosive speech in Maharashtra's Solapur on Tuesday, 27 December.
Even though Andhare spoke in her characteristic style with a healthy dose of exaggeration, rumours are rife that the BJP wants to upstage Shinde and install the current Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis as the CM.
A few days ago, BJP state president Chandrashekhar Bawankule said that he wants to see Fadnavis as the CM. “We don’t want to install Fadnavis on the highest post just for the sake of it…But for changing the fortunes of Maharashtra,” he said, leading to an array of stinging attacks by Opposition parties in the state.
Planned or otherwise, the BJP is definitely getting ample help from the opposition parties in putting the chief minister in the dock, with the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) mounting a slew of corruption charges against the Balasahebanchi Shiv Sena (BSS) ministers as well as Shinde himself in the ongoing Winter session of the Assembly.
Shinde in the Dock
In the first week of the session, the MVA raised the issue of Shinde transferring the land meant for slum redevelopment in Nagpur to private individuals in 2021, when he was the urban development minister, at a cheaper rate.
The land, spread over 4.5 acres land belonging to the Nagpur Improvement Trust (NIT), was transferred to 16 private individuals at the cost of Rs 2 crore while the prevailing market rate was Rs 83 crore.
Shinde had allegedly applied the 2007 rates when 34 such other plots had been regularised under the Maharashtra Gunthewari Act. The matter, however, was sub judice and the state government had been told not to take any decision in the matter of regularisation of the plots.
When the Bombay High Court was apprised of Shinde's decision, it passed adversarial comments against him. Shinde later claimed that he was unaware that the matter was pending before the court and cancelled his 2021 order. The opposition, however, wasn't satisfied and has demanded his resignation.
Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray, who was the CM when the NIT decision was taken, said: “Is it okay for such an individual to hold office after such observations were made by the court? There are precedents of ministers quitting after allegations. The practice should be followed.”
Interestingly, in the list of questions before the Maharashtra Assembly's upper house, there was one question marked by Bawankule on the NIT issue, which did not come up for discussion due to lack of time.
Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Sanjay Raut later alleged in a press conference that Bawankule's question hints towards BJP's plan to oust Shinde from the CM post.
Second Week's Target – Abdul Sattar
At the very beginning of the Assembly session's second week, the opposition targeted another minister from the Shinde camp – Abdul Sattar. Sattar is the agriculture minister in the new government, who was accused of transferring 37 acres of gairan (grazing) land to a private individual in the Washim district.
According to a Supreme Court judgment in 2011, gairan land cannot be regularised and allotted to a private person or body. Sattar allegedly regularised the gairan tract in Ghodbabhul village in Washim district in an order passed on 17 June 2022, when he was the minister of state for revenue. The case was raked up by the opposition after the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court stayed the government order.
As the timeline suggests, this decision too was taken during the previous MVA government when Thackeray was the CM.
Fadnavis, while responding to the opposition on this matter in the Assembly, said: “Nobody will be spared if found guilty but we haven’t gone through the details. The minister is the right person to present his side and he is not present in the House at the moment.”
Sattar defended himself in the House on Wednesday, claiming he had done nothing wrong and that he was only trying to help a poor, backward caste family.
The other ministers from the Shinde camp who have been targeted by the opposition, either in the House or outside, are Industries Minister Uday Samant, Excise Minister Shambhuraj Desai, and Food and Drugs Minister Sanjay Rathod. Interestingly, only the BSS leaders are facing the heat in the ongoing Winter session, triggering rumours that the BJP is somehow involved.
Who Is the Real CM Anyway?
Shinde, who the opposition parties repeatedly call a 'weak CM', has failed to put up a spirited defence against the allegations.
Opposition leader Ajit Pawar slammed Shinde for his absence from the session, especially at the time of the question-answer hour.
"The CM has 14-15 ministries with him but the answers related to them are given by Shambhuraj Desai, Uday Samant...," he said. He then addressed Deputy CM Fadnavis, saying, "Devendraji, you too have 7-8 ministries with you. You give answers concerning all your ministries. You don't appoint anyone else to give answers on your behalf...maybe because you are capable."
Fadnavis snatching the mic from Shinde in their very first press conference, Fadnavis passing a note to Shinde during another briefing, Amruta Fadnavis referring to Devendra Fadnavis as the CM in another event — while some incidents could be passed off as either oversights or Freudian slips, the recent developments in the Maharashtra Assembly and the actions of the BJP state president cannot be ignored amid the present high-octane political environment in the state.