Former Union Minister Balasaheb Vikhe Patil was removed from his post at the instance of party supremo Bal Thackeray, not because he was found unsuitable or inefficient, but because the party is likely to project him the next Maharashtra Chief Minister, senior Shiv Sena sources told Business Standard in New Delhi.
Vikhe Patil was asked to resign ahead of the Cabinet reshuffle earlier this month and a new candidate for his portfolio was forwarded by the Shiv Sena.
Because of the circumstances in which the Sena's first Power Minister Suresh Prabhu, was removed from his post (he was asked to resign, reportedly for not doing enough to build and finance the party) it was assumed that Vikhe-Patil fell foul of the Sena leadership and was turfed out.
This does not appear to be the case. The Sena views the next one year as one of realignments and forging new political equations in the run-up to Assembly elections in 2004. The move is a part of that scenario.
Vikhe Patil's two strong points are: he is from western Maharashtra, a region where the Sena is not strong, in fact he is the only Sena leader of any consequence to have been elected from western Maharashtra.
So projecting a candidate for the chief ministership from a region where the party is weak could give a kick-start to building the party anew in the area. Vikhe Patil's another plus point is that he is a Maratha.
With pressure growing on Sharad Pawar to return to state politics, it is imperative for the Opposition to offer an alternative to the Marathas, an economically strong and politically influential caste.
Party sources say the next few months are going to see a sea change in the Maharashtra politics. Although the Congress has announced that its doors are open to allies, Pawar is still viewed with suspicion.
Pawar will have to decide quickly whether he would like to continue to go with the Congress or change partners.
The Sena is decidedly unhappy with the BJP where the state politics is concerned. While it will align with the BJP to keep Sonia Gandhi out at the national level, at the state level, the BJP is beginning to cramp its style.
In the normal course, Maharashtra Assembly and general elections are to be held together. However, given the political difficulties of Pawar in sustaining a political partnership with the Congress in the state while opposing Sonia on the grounds of her foreign origin at the Centre, he is toying with the idea of early elections that will de-link the Assembly elections from the Lok Sabha elections.
If this happens, the Sena does not want to be caught napping. The man who should have been Sena's candidate for the chief ministership, Narayan Rane, is gradually being sidelined.
This was apparent after the recent political onslaught on him in the state. The Sena did support him but the combative element in Sena's defence was absent.
Party workers have taken note of this. In the circumstances, dramatic moves to bring about a change in Maharashtra cannot be ruled out.
Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde is going to be abroad from 22 June to 7 July. Sena leaders are expecting some move to topple the Congress-NCP government in this period.
If the government falls (as it came perilously close to doing last year) the Shiv Sena has a ready candidate for the chief ministership.