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Knives out as BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra teeters on edge

Thackeray, at a press conference at his home Matoshree, lashed out at Fadnavis and the BJP, accusing them of “calling my family a liar for the first time”

Knives out as BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in Maharashtra teeters on edge
Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray with Yuva Sena Chief Aaditya Thackeray addresses a press conference at Shiv Sena Bhavan at Dadar in Mumbai, Friday, Nov. 8, 2019. (PTI file photo)

Devendra Fadnavis resigned as chief minister on Friday — the first material damage inflicted by the raging war of words between the BJP and the Shiv Sena that has plunged Maharashtra and the pre-poll alliance into uncertainty just two weeks after it got the numbers required to form the next government.

Fadnavis, 49, a surprise pick by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) high-command after the 2014 assembly polls, handed in his resignation to governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari hours before the term of the assembly was to end on Friday night.

He then began a press conference in the lighter vein, saying “I am giving a good news,” before launching a scathing attack in which he accused the Sena of lying about a “50-50 formula”, its chief Uddhav Thackeray of unceremoniously snapping channels of communication, and the party of targeting BJP leaders — including Prime Minister Narendra Modi — through its mouthpiece Saamana.

Minutes later, Thackeray, at a press conference at his home Matoshree, lashed out at Fadnavis and the BJP, accusing them of “calling my family a liar for the first time” and expressing a litany of complaints in which he described his allies of 30 years as “hiding behind a mask” and trying to “finish us off with sweet talk”.

“I’d promised my father I would install a Shiv Sena chief minister. The Sena doesn’t need Fadnavis and [Amit] Shah for the chief minister’s post,” Thackeray thundered.

The governor is now expected to invite the largest party — BJP — to prove majority in the House. BJP has 105 MLAs and the support of 15 independent legislators, but needs another 25 seats to reach the majority in the 288-member house.

If it fails to do so, the second-largest party, the Shiv Sena, may be asked to stake claim with its 56 MLAs. Sena can only do so with the support from the Nationalist Congress Party (54 MLAs) and the Congress (44 MLAs). Should Sena also fail, the governor will recommend the President’s Rule, which will have to be vetted by the Parliament in two months.

The impasse began soon after the election results on October 24.

Since then, the BJP and the Sena have squabbled over portfolios and a demand of rotating the chief minister’s post – ostensibly between Fadnavis and Aaditya Thackeray – and have dug in their heels deeper with every passing day.

This has included vitriolic editorials in the Sena’s mouthpiece Saamana, approaches to NCP chief Sharad Pawar by Sena MP Sanjay Raut to explore an alternative government, ferrying Sena MLAs into a hotel to prevent horse-trading, statements from the BJP that any pact over the CM’s post was figment of the Sena’s imagination, and repeated assertions that come what way Fadnavis would return to power.

With each event, and each comment, the chasm widened.

The problem, Fadnavis said in his press briefing, started soon after the results.

“Unfortunately, the day the results came, Uddhav ji said all options open for government formation. That was shocking for us as people had given mandate for our alliance and in such circumstances it was a big question for us that why he said that all options are open for him,” Fadnavis, who was just two weeks ago being celebrated as first Maharashtra CM in four decades to win a second term, said.

“We tried from our side that we engage in discussions with them [Shiv Sena]. They did not even contact us. Instead of speaking to us, they were speaking with NCP and Congress from the very first day. I think they have been planning this from day one that they would be going with NCP. We have communicated many times,” he added.

“I again want to make it clear that it was never decided that the CM’s post will be shared. There was never a decision on this issue. Even Amit Shah ji and Nitin Gadkari ji said this was never decided... When I asked Amit Shah ji about this, he said Shiv Sena gave the proposal but the decision was not taken.”

Fadnavis said that the governor asked him to continue as caretaker CM, to which he agreed. “The alternate arrangements could be anything — a new government or imposition of President’s Rule,” he said.

Thackeray said he feels, in hindsight, that he may have entered into an alliance with the wrong people.

“It is very sad that while cleaning the Ganga their [the BJP leaders’] minds became polluted. I felt bad that we entered into an alliance with the wrong people,” Thackeray said.

“We had never closed the doors for discussion, they [BJP] lied to us so we did not talk to them. We have not yet held talks with the NCP… I stopped talks now because Fadnavis said I was lying. I was hurt by his remarks that no such formula was decided,” he added.

“Before Lok Sabha, during the talks they offered us the deputy CM post which I rejected… Amit Shah had accepted my demand that power, including the CM post, should be shared equally. It is for the first time that someone levelled false allegations against Thackeray family. I can’t go in front of people as a liar son of Balasaheb. That’s why I will do whatever I feel right,” Thackeray said.

When asked if the Sena would pull out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – which would also mean withdrawing the only central minister from the party, the Ministry of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises Arvind Sawant – Thackeray appeared to keep his options open but said he did not want to have any relationship with people who called him a liar.

Senior BJP leaders in Delhi indicated that the party would stand by Fadnavis despite the turmoil in the state. “Fadnavis has complete trust of the BJP leadership. We will not desert him,” said a senior BJP leader privy to deliberations on Maharashtra.

“Fadnavis was our chief ministerial face in the recent election and there is no point in sacrificing him now,” he added.

Union minister and Nagpur MP Nitin Gadkari, too, offered to mediate between the Sena and his party on Friday, and insisted that an alternative government would be formed under Fadnavis’s leadership.

The Congress held the BJP “fully responsible” for the crisis. When asked whether the party would support Sena, state Congress chief Balasaheb Thorat said, “We have not yet finalised any strategy in this matter. We shall wait for the steps taken by the governor before we do anything.”

Thorat, along with several other senior Congress leaders, met NCP chief Pawar at the latter’s residence.

Before Fadnavis’ resignation, Pawar had also met RPI chief Ramdas Athawale and said, “Shiv Sena and BJP have got the mandate and they should form the government. This is what Athawale and myself have discussed and we agreed on this point.”

Some legal experts said that the governor has discretionary powers to decide when to call the parties to form the government. “He must have waited to finish the term of the incumbent government,” said former advocate general Shreehari Aney

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