Eknath Sambhaji Shinde – leader of the Shiv Sena rebellion – is now the chief minister of Maharashtra. The move comes as a surprise, as it was expected that the BJP's Devendra Fadnavis would return as CM, with his party having more seats than the Sena.
To state the obvious, this may have entirely been the BJP's call, though the party may claim that it had nothing to do with the rebellion of Shinde and the other MLAs.
"I will not be a part of the cabinet, but I will take responsibility for the smooth functioning of the alliance and the government. I will provide full support and co-operation to the government," Devendra Fadnavis had said.
However, later, the BJP top brass is said to have impressed upon Fadnavis to become deputy chief minister.
So, why did the BJP choose to elevate Eknath Shinde and not insist on having its own CM?
1. Legal Tussle
The Maharashtra Assembly deputy speaker suspended 16 MLAs under the advise of the Shiv Sena leadership. The status of these MLAs is still subjudice, with the Supreme Court hearing the matter.
Even if the suspension would have been revoked, the status of the entire set of rebels would still be uncertain. The anti-defection law makes it difficult for a group of rebel MLAs from a party to form an independent block, even if they account for more than two-thirds of the total number of MLAs of the party.
Therefore, Shinde's camp would have been left with only two options – to merge with the BJP or a smaller party aligned to the NDA or legally stake claim to being the 'real Shiv Sena'.
The first option would have meant conceding Uddhav Thackeray's contention that his faction represents the real Shiv Sena.
The second option would have meant a long and complicated legal tussle, which would have been difficult for the rebels to sustain.
2. Doubts Regarding Rebel Shiv Sena MLAs
Since the beginning of Shinde's rebellion, The Quint has been reporting that there are two groups even within the rebel MLA camp. This became even more clear as the group became bigger.
As more MLAs joined, the group that was open to an outright rebellion against Uddhav Thackeray and merging with the BJP began to get more marginalised. And the priority became to somehow preserve their identity as Shiv Sainiks.
There may have been doubts in the BJP regarding the reliability of a section of the Sena MLAs. There were fears that a section of MLAs may backtrack if it came to a complete split from the Sena leadership.
The doubts of a section of MLAs are understandable as the cadre overwhelmingly seemed to support Uddhav Thackeray during the entire tussle. So, splitting away from the Sena may have been detrimental to many of their careers.
3. Takeover of the Shiv Sena, Monopoly Over Hindutva
This seems to be the main, big-picture political aim behind making Shinde the CM instead of Fadnavis. It appears that the BJP doesn't just want to bring down a non-NDA government or even form a BJP-led government; the purpose is also to take over the Sena from the Thackerays.
The repeated references to Balasaheb Thackeray during Fadnavis' address on Thursday indicates that the BJP wants to send the message that Shinde's Sena is the real Sena.
The only way this 'coup' can be carried out is by appointing a Sena CM. Anything less than that would have strengthened Uddhav Thackeray's contention that the rebels betrayed Sena's claim over the CM's chair.
During a recent public address, Thackeray had dared the rebels to make a Shiv Sainik the CM. He said he would gladly step aside if that happens.
Now, the BJP has made it happen. If Thackeray had opposed it, then Shinde and supporters would have accused him of clinging to his chair and not respecting the fact that a Shiv Sainik from a humble background became CM.
On the other hand, if Thackeray withdraws the legal challenge, the party stays united, but he would stand greatly weakened.
It won't be surprising of the rebel MLAs and Eknath Shinde now to come to Matoshree to seek Thackeray's 'forgiveness', still accepting his titular leadership even in this weakened position.
However, what is clear is that Thackeray's attempt to put forward his version of Hindutva against that of the BJP has come a cropper. The BJP now has complete monopoly over Hindutva.
4. Eye on Lok Sabha Elections, Containing Fadnavis
The move also needs to be seen in the context of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. Even if the Sena rebels overcame the legal challenges and a BJP-led government was formed in Maharashtra, it would have pushed Uddhav Thackeray and much of the Sena rank and file towards the UPA camp. An alliance between Uddhav Thackeray's Sena, NCP, and Congress would have been a formidable one and put forward a strong fight in the 48 seats of Maharashtra.
Remember, the NDA had won 41 out of 48 seats in Maharashtra in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Against a combined NCP-Congress-Sena (Uddhav Thackeray) alliance, the NDA would have incurred heavy losses.
While a repeat may still not be easy, at least the losses in terms of seats may be contained.
Some would also say that appointing Shinde instead of Fadnavis may be PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah's way of containing the former Maharashtra CM. The fact that he didn't want to be part of the government but the party top brass asked him to be Shinde's deputy seems to point in this direction.
At the very least, it prioritises Modi-Shah's Mission 2024 over Fadnavis' own prospects.
In addition to the Lok Sabha election, a more immediate milestone would be the BMC election. Now, the BJP would gain power in the BMC in some form or the other. It may have had a tougher task at hand had it been up against an independent Sena or even worse, a Sena-Congress-NCP alliance.
5. Social and Political Messaging
The BJP's move to make Shinde CM also comes with a tacit message to other 'family-run parties'. It is an invitation to every possible Eknath Shinde in these parties: "gather courage and rebel, the BJP will support you."
It is also to assert that the BJP supports leaders from a common background to take on those with hereditary privilege.
Obviously, the BJP has its own share of dynasts but this is how the narrative may be spun.
Similarly, Shinde's appointment is also an olive branch to the influential Maratha community in Maharashtra.
Though the BJP's support among Marathas has been increasing, there has been disquiet in the community at the lack of representation they get in the party compared to their dominance in the NCP and Congress.
Making a Maratha the CM is now the BJP's way of reaching out to the community.