On the face of it, the crisis in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra seems to have blown over with the resignation of forest minister and Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Rathod.
But the episode has left too many unanswered questions about the larger state of affairs in the alliance government and power struggles within the Shiv Sena.
On Sunday, Sanjay Dulichand Rathod (49) became the first minister from the Uddhav Thackeray-led regime to quit the cabinet. This followed the suicide of a 22-year-old woman Pooja Chavan. On February 8, Chavan, who hailed from Parli Vaijyanath in Beed district and was described as a Tiktok star, died by suicide at Hadapsar in Pune.
Soon after, several audio clips and photographs which purportedly linked Chavan and Rathod surfaced in the media. However, instead of clarifying his position, Rathod went incognito for almost two weeks, giving grist to the mill. Sensing a political opening, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) sought Rathod’s dismissal from the cabinet.
Later, a defiant Rathod visited the Pohradevi temple located in Washim district, which is known as one of the most sacred shrines of the Banjara community to which he belongs. In a massive show of strength, thousands of his supporters had turned up at the shrine throwing all Covid-19 appropriate behavior to the winds, violating chief minister Thackeray’s curbs on political and religious gatherings. Soon after, the shrine’s chief priest and some other attendees tested positive for Covid-19.
In a press conference at Pohradevi, Rathod, who projected himself as a leader of the other backward Banjaras, who have significant numbers in Vidarbha and parts of Marathwada, broke his silence and claimed innocence. Incidentally, Chavan, the deceased, is also a Banjara. However, the community’s leaders have come out in Rathod’s support. Chavan’s parents, who met Uddhav on Sunday, said they had never sought Rathod’s resignation and stressed that no one must be scalped on mere suspicion.
With the opposition BJP upping the ante, Rathod resigned on the eve of the budget session, which began on Monday.
However, Rathod’s resignation has not pulled the curtains down on the controversy but raised questions about the Shiv Sena leadership’s handling of the issue, relations between the MVA constituents and power equations even within the once-monolithic Shiv Sena.
When confronted with the demand for his resignation, Rathod is said to have held out, something that was once unusual in a party like the Shiv Sena, where the high-command’s writ always prevails.
The Sena’s political predicament was also apparent as Rathod is among the four Shiv Sena legislators to be elected from the 64 assembly segments in Vidarbha, which is otherwise dominated by the BJP and Congress.
Appointed as the Shiv Sena district president in Yavatmal district at the age of 27, Rathod had defeated senior Congress leader and then minister of state for home Manikrao Thakre from Digras in 2004. He followed this up with victories from the Darwha constituency in 2009 and 2014. In 2019, Rathod trounced Sanjay Deshmukh of the Congress by a margin of over 60,000 votes.
Rathod’s swashbuckling victory was significant as he is said to be at odds with local Shiv Sena MP Bhavana Gawli. While Rathod had emerged as a leader of the Banjaras, this challenged the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) sway on the community in the region.
Incidentally, the home department is held by the NCP and questions have been asked on the photographs and audio clips being leaked out. Sources in reliable authority claim that these audio clips have not even been sent for a forensic analysis to identify the speakers.
There are murmurs in the Shiv Sena about why the party capitulated to the demands to make Rathod resign when NCP leader and social justice minister Dhananjay Munde, who was accused of rape, continues in the cabinet. It is said that NCP supremo Sharad Pawar, who is seen as the binding glue of the MVA, had expressed his displeasure about Rathod and his show of strength at Pohradevi during the pandemic.
That the Shiv Sena has ceded more space to the NCP in the government is an old complaint in the party.
A strong faction in the Sena was said to be standing firmly with Rathod. This is said to have complicated matters for the Shiv Sena leadership when it came to giving marching orders to the minister. If Uddhav, who is the chief minister and also the party president, had sacked Rathod instead of the minister putting in his papers himself, this would have sent a message that the leadership’s control over its folk was weakening.
The Shiv Sena’s Achilles heel — the lack of crisis management skills — has also come to the fore yet again.
The Rathod episode also brings back memories of then chief minister Manohar Joshi’s clash with environment and forest minister Ganesh Naik in 1998 during the erstwhile Shiv Sena- BJP government (1995-1999).
Navi Mumbai strongman Naik had been asked by Joshi to quit the cabinet to facilitate a reshuffle. However, Naik, who is now in the BJP, had dug his heels in and refused, thus challenging Joshi’s authority. Soon after, minister of state Suresh Navale was also shown the door after a clash with Joshi, leading to a protracted war of attrition in the Shiv Sena.
One reason for Uddhav breaking with the convention of those from the Shiv Sena’s first family not occupying public office is said to be the tension inherent in the diarchy of power that existed in the Sena. While late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray clashed with Joshi, who was replaced by Narayan Rane, Uddhav faced a tough time quelling the fallout of Rane’s rebellion in 2005.
Hence, as Shiv Sena insiders admit, the party leadership was not in the mood to create “more Joshis or Ranes” prompting Uddhav’s decision to take the reins himself.
With Uddhav as the chief minister, any defiance by ministers or party men will raise serious questions on a possible weakening of the Shiv Sena leadership’s authority. As the Rathod controversy makes it evident, this is a situation that the Sena has found difficult to negotiate.