Maharashtra Cabinet Minister and Shiv Sena strongman Eknath Shinde plunged the ruling alliance in the state into a political crisis on Tuesday as he rebelled against his party and landed in a Surat hotel along with some Sena MLAs, putting a huge question mark on the stability of the two-and-a-half-year-old Maha Vikas Aghadi dispensation.
The dramatic turn of events came hours after results of polls to the state legislative council on Monday night, which saw the Shiv Sena-led MVA losing one of the six seats it contested, to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party which got all its five nominees elected to the upper house, possibly on the back of cross-voting in its favour from the ruling bloc besides support from Independents and MLAs from smaller parties.
Sena MP Sanjay Raut said 14 to 15 party MLAs are with Shinde in Surat in BJP-ruled Gujarat.
He also alleged that two of them, including Nitin Deshmukh, have been beaten up and he has suffered a heart attack.
The Uddhav Thackeray-led party swiftly moved against Shinde (58), an MLA from Thane district, and removed him as the party's group leader in the Maharashtra legislative assembly.
Shinde, who holds urban development and PWD portfolios, has been removed as the Shiv Sena group leader in the assembly and replaced with Ajay Choudhury, Raut told reporters.
Justifying the decision against his party colleague, Raut said disciplinary action was necessary.
With no sign of any let-up in the crisis, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, NCP chief Sharad Pawar and Congress leader Balasaheb Thorat are expected to meet on Tuesday night to find a solution.
Getting into action mode, the MVA lead constituent deputed its members Milind Narvekar and Ravindra Phatak to hold talks with rebel leader Shinde in Surat, around 280 km from Mumbai, and try to mollify him.
As Shinde is yet to spell out his stand, Maharashtra BJP chief Chandrakant Patil ruled out any link of his party to the ongoing political turmoil, but added the opposition outfit would "definitely consider" a proposal if it comes from the rebel leader to form an alternative government.
Without naming Uddhav Thackeray, who heads the Shiv Sena, Shinde took to Twitter, his only comment so far since the crisis broke on Tuesday morning, and said he will never "cheat for power" and abandon the teachings of party founder late Bal Thackeray.
"We are staunch Shiv Sainiks of Balasaheb who gave us lessons on Hindutva. We will never cheat for power and will never abandon the teachings of Balasaheb and Anand Dighe for power," Shinde tweeted in Marathi.
The late Dighe, a Shiv Sena stalwart from Thane, was the political mentor of Shinde.
Speaking in New Delhi, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, whose party is the second largest constituent in the MVA, said there is an attempt to pull down the Maharashtra government, which he said is happening for the third time.
He also said that Uddhav Thackeray will handle the political crisis, which he described as an "internal matter" of the Sena, which snapped its ties with the BJP and joined hands with the NCP and the Congress to form the MVA government in November 2019.
In the 288-member Maharashtra assembly, the Shiv Sena has 55 MLAS, NCP (53), Congress (44), Bahujan Vikas Agahdi (three), Samajwadi Party, AIMIM and Prahar Janshakti Party two each. MNS, CPI-M, PWP, Swabhimani Paksha, Rashtriya Samaj Party, Jansurajya Shakti Party and Krantikari Shetkari Paksha have one MLA each. There are 13 independent MLAs.
The opposition BJP has 106 MLAs.
Leaders of NCP and Congress, the other constituents of the MVA, however, asserted that there is no threat to the stability of the state government.
The sudden disappearance of Shinde and some party MLAs prompted Chief Minister Thackeray to call an urgent meeting with party legislators and leaders at 'Varsha', his official residence, in south Mumbai.
”We are in touch with many MLAs. Many had left for their constituencies, but they could not make it. But we are in touch with them and some of them are travelling back,” said a Sena leader.
Senior NCP leader and state minister Chhagan Bhujbal told PTI that MLAs of his party are intact.
Bhujbal and state Congress president Nana Patole ruled out any threat to the MVA government.
Congress minister Balasaheb Thorat said his party is closely watching the developments in the Shiv Sena and they have spoken to the chief minister. If needed, a meeting of the MVA will be held, he said.
Thorat also said all Congress MLAs have been asked to stay put in Mumbai.
The Congress has deputed senior leader Kamal Nath as AICC observer to Maharashtra in view of recent political developments in state.
Nath will leave for Mumbai on Wednesday morning, sources close to the former CM said in Bhopal.
The development comes hours after MVA suffered a setback in the legislative council polls, results for which were announced on Monday night.
A Shiv Sena leader said Shinde was present at Vidhan Bhavan, where the voting took place, on Monday till around 5 pm along with CM Thackeray.
The rebel MLAs, reportedly unhappy with the Sena leadership, arrived in Surat on Monday night and are camping at the Le Meridian Hotel in the diamond city, sources said.
A Congress minister said Shinde has been restless for the past week and claimed that the Sena leader wanted the deputy chief minister's post (which is currently with the NCP).
Shinde wields considerable influence in the satellite cities of Mumbai.
Meanwhile, the police have increased security outside his private residence in Thane.
Sena MP Raut blamed the BJP for the current political situation. He said that BJP's attempts, like in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, to topple the MVA government will not succeed.
Maharashtra BJP chief Chandrakant Patil admitted that BJP MLA Sanjay Kute had met Shinde.
Patil alleged Sanjay Raut was responsible for the frosty relations between the Sena and the BJP.
"He (Raut) is also doing a lot of damage to the state...and he is doing it on someone's behalf," the BJP leader claimed.