As reports of political parties swiftly switching loyalties -- to quench their thirst for power -- swirl over Maharashtra, Prasanna D Zore/Rediff.com speaks to different players involved in the game of thrones.
Anger against the Bharatiya Janata Party is brewing among leaders of the Shiv Sena led by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde over reports of the BJP cosying up to the Nationalist Congress Party to form a government in Maharashtra in the event the Supreme Court disqualifies the 16 MLAs from the Shinde camp.
Senior Shiv Sena ministers are flummoxed with the swiftly changing political equations between Sharad Pawar's NCP and the BJP with whom they had formed a government in the state last June after almost decimating the Shiv Sena headed by Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray.
"I have no idea. If that happens (the NCP-BJP forms a government sidelining Eknath Shinde) where will Shinde go?" asks an angry cabinet minister in the Shinde government.
"We trust the BJP to not play Eknath Shinde on Shinde saheb," he adds alluding to how Shinde, in June 2022, had ditched Uddhav Thackeray's Shiv Sena in a daring rebellion and flew away with 40 MLAs.
"Don't expect us to sit quiet and watch the tamasha from the sidelines," warns another minister, who was not among the first batch of 13 MLAs with whom Shinde first drove to Surat.
Shiv Sena MLAs and ministers are fuming over reports that the BJP is planning to form a government in Maharashtra by ditching Eknath Shinde and his 39 MLAs as a cloud of uncertainty hangs over their future over their disqualification plea in the apex court.
This minister makes another startling claim that the NCP is on the verge of disintegration pointing to sequence of events when Ajit Pawar -- Sharad Pawar's nephew, former Maharashtra deputy chief minister and second-in-command after the senior Pawar in the NCP -- went incommunicado the same evening when Pawar in an interview to NDTV observed that there was no need of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe charges of irregularities made by Hindenburg Research against Indian business tycoon Gautam Adani.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been consistently and aggressively alleging a close nexus between Prime Minister Narendra D Modi and Adani and his party is at the forefront demanding a JPC.
"NCP is not a party that will sustain for long. It is destined for disintegration, sooner or later. The other day Ajit dada had a tiff with Jayant Patil (who is also reportedly coveting to head the NCP in the post Sharad Pawar era and so considered a rival by Ajit Pawar and his band of supporters; Patil is also the president of the state NCP) had remained unreachable with seven MLAs. They are fighting this cold war in public," says this minister.
According to this Shinde minister, Sharad Pawar, Ajit Pawar and the NCP will be most amenable to jumping ship and joining hands with the BJP.
"The plan is on hold because the Congress is not yet ready with sufficient number of MLAs to split. These (NCP and Congress) MLAs are so desperate that half of them will join the Shiv Sena and the other half will join hands with the BJP," the minister claims.
The BJP with 105 MLAs in the current assembly needs another 40 MLAs to cross the two-third mark mandatorily required to form a government in the 288-member House.
The Shiv Sena had 56 MLAs before the party split in June 2022, the NCP has 54 legislators and the Congress 44 MLAs.
Congress leaders strongly refute the possibility of a split in its ranks. Two of its former ministers, without wanting to be named, told this correspondent that such stories are planted by the BJP to create a rift in the Maha Vikas Aghadi.
In fact, the NCP's official stance too is on similar lines.
"The BJP is seeding such stories (in the media) with the help of Anjali Damania (former AAP Maharashtra convener) They want to create rifts within the MVA and put some pressure on Shinde group MLAs to keep their ministerial ambitions in check," says the NCP's Clyde Crasto.
Despite such refutations, reports of the NCP-BJP coming together to form a government till 2024 -- when both the Lok Sabha and Maharashtra assembly elections are due -- have takers among the Uddhav Thackeray's Sena and the NCP.
"The BJP is warming up to the NCP because it wants to stay in power till the next Lok Sabha and assembly elections in Maharashtra; they (the BJP) is definitely feeling nervous about the Supreme Court's decision about disqualification of MLAs who split the then Shiv Sena," says a former minister from the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray).
"The BJP will need a chunk of 40 MLAs or so to form a government in such a case. The BJP wouldn't want President's rule in the state for a year till the next assembly and Lok Sabha election. They won't be able to flex their power to work on Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi's pet development projects (like the Bullet train) in that event," says this Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) leader.
"The two parties do share lot of bonhomie between them. In 2014, Pawar saheb had announced to unconditionally support the BJP form a government," he points out.
"Sharad Pawar formed the NCP in 1999 after quitting the Congress; he has always sided with the party in power to cling to power and he won't waste a chance to form the government with the BJP if the opportunity presents itself," adds a Congress leader and former minister in the then MVA government.
"The BJP doesn't need to split any political party now. They would rather welcome the entire NCP to form a government with it," he adds.
The Shinde camp, however, wants nothing of it. Even if they are not in a position to scuttle such an arrangement between the BJP and NCP if the Supreme Court disqualifies the 16 MLAs, the Shinde minister quoted earlier says they will not take it lying down.
"If Ajit Pawar and Devendra Fadnavis come together, don't expect Shinde saheb to be a mute spectator and sing bhajans (take political sanyas)," he says wryly.