The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hardly known to back out of a contest no matter the stakes, has paid a small price in Maharashtra for the 'bigger picture.'
Three months after the split in the Shiv Sena, the Uddhav Thackeray faction was to face its first big electoral challenge with the Andheri East bypolls in Mumbai, necessitated by the death of MLA Ramesh Latke in May this year. To ride on the sympathy wave, the Uddhav faction had made its intentions clear to field his wife Rutuja Latke in the bypolls, who faced a significant political struggle in the run up to filing her nomination.
Meanwhile, after quite some deliberation, the BJP did field Murji Patel against Latke, with both having filed their nominations on 14 October.
However, Maharashtra BJP president Chandrashekhar Bawankule on Monday, 17 October, said that Patel will withdraw the candidature in a "show of goodwill for the deceased MLA's family."
The claims by the BJP, however, are being taken by many with a pinch of salt, considering the days of high-octane political drama in the run-up to the withdrawal and what was at stake for the party if they lost the bypolls.
The Drama Before the Withdrawal
Even before the two factions were allotted two different names by and symbols by the Election Commission last week, the Uddhav faction had alleged pressure on Rutuja Latke by the Shinde camp to contest the bypolls on the latter's ticket.
Following unconfirmed claims of being in touch with Shinde himself over the matter, Rutuja Latke had denied any meeting with the chief minister and publicly declared her loyalty to Uddhav Thackeray.
However, the contest started heating up closer to the date of filing nomination (14 October), after Rutuja Latke claimed that her resignation submitted on 3 October as an administrative officer in the K ward of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) was not being accepted despite filing the nomination. Without her resignation being accepted Rutuja Latke would not have been able to file the nomination.
While the BMC cited technicalities over delay in filing the nomination, both Devendra Fadnavis and Eknath Shinde publicly denied Uddhav camp's allegations that they were trying to pressurise Rutuja Latke.
She eventually had to approach the Bombay High Court which ordered the BMC to accept her resignation, following which the Uddhav faction officially declared her the candidate.
'Surrendered to the BJP Again?': Shinde's Dilemma
The Andheri East bypoll was not just the first electoral test for the Uddhav faction, but also for the Shinde-BJP alliance, who the Uddhav camp has largely been successful in portraying as the 'traitors'.
First, Shinde came under fire from the Uddhav faction and the Maha Vaikas Aghadi (MVA) allies for allegedly "surrendering" the seat to the BJP that has belonged to the Shiv Sena for two of the three terms of the constituency's existence since 2009.
Ramesh Latke was a prominent leader of the Shiv Sena for over three decades. Thrice a corporator and a two-time MLA from the seat, the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), was predicted to win the bypoll with the sympathy behind his wife Rutuja.
Meanwhile, sources say that many in the Shinde faction were not in favour of contesting against Ramesh Latke's widow not just because Latke was a former colleague, but also because it would help strengthen the perspective that the Uddhav faction is trying to create of the Shinde faction.
Coupled with the sympathy wave, Rutuja Latke was also strengthened politically with the backing of not just the MVA allies - the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), but also the Communist Party of India (CPI) whose delegation met Uddhav Thackeray and extended their support.
How it Works for the BJP to Not Contest
The chatter of the possibility of the BJP backing out of the contest started just a day after Patel filed his nomination, along with reports of a possible conflict within the party's state unit over it.
While Mumbai BJP president Ashish Shelar, who announced Patel's candidature, was reportedly firm over contesting, the senior state leadership felt otherwise.
Several senior leaders of the state, including NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray urged the BJP and Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis to withdraw from the polls "to uphold the state's culture of not fielding a candidate against the kin of a deceased lawmaker."
After marathon meetings over the matter, including a late night BJP meet at Fadnavis' residence on Sunday and his meeting with Shinde, Patel withdrew his candidature on Monday, the last day for doing so. However, not Shelar, but Bawankule announced the decision of backing out from the polls, that too in Nagpur.
Withdrawing from the polls works for the party in three ways:
It helps the BJP to not be seen as a politically ruthless opponent to field a candidate against the kin of a deceased MLA.
Any possibility of facing a defeat in a key bypoll gets averted ahead of the bigger contest - the BMC elections. A defeat in the Andheri bypolls would have made the alliance look weaker compared to Uddhav's faction and the MVA.
The risk of a possible conflict with the Shinde faction, which was already reported to be divided over fielding a candidate against Latke, got avoided.
However, many state leaders, including Aditya Thackeray and NCP's Jayant Patil called the BJP's withdrawal from the contest 'too little too late'.
Though the Shinde-Fadnavis alliance had maintained that the BMC is an independent body and that the government had nothing to do in the delay over accepting Latke's resignation, the Uddhav faction had already spinned the narrative that a widow of a former colleague was being harassed and pressurised by the Shinde-BJP alliance to the extent that she had to approach the court in order to fight for her deceased husband's seat.
After Patel's withdrawal, Rutuja Latke thanked Uddhav, Pawar, Raj Thackeray, and Shinde faction's Pratap Sarnaik, and all those who appealed to the BJP against contesting.
While Latke will still face the polls on 3 November as seven more candidates are in the fray, her victory is very much sealed in the battle, which was to be a one-on-one contest with the BJP.