It has finally happened. It is perhaps a record of sorts in Independent India. The Cabinet expansion in Maharashtra, which has taken place on Tuesday, August 9, 40 days after the installation of the Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis government, is a reminder that the BJP and the splinter group of the Shiv Sena are virtually walking in a minefield.
With the inclusion of nine members each from the BJP and the Shinde faction, the Cabinet now has a strength of 20, including the CM. The Opposition was quick to point out the failure to include even a single woman in the expansion when Maharashtra is known to be a progressive state.
The expansion took place at a time when the coalition faced a moment like “aage bhi jaane na tu, piche bhi jaane na tu”. This is because the BJP as well as the Shinde Sena faction had become the butt of ridicule for carrying on the business of government with just two members — the chief minister and his deputy.
“Dear IKEA, Maharashtra needs a Cabinet”, a concerned citizen wrote on Twitter last week, to sarcastically highlight the sorry (as well as comic) state of affairs in the state after the political roller-coaster seen a month back. The anguish was over the fact that there appeared nothing to be happening fit and proper in the premier state where the problems of the ordinary citizen were mounting by the day.
The Opposition parties too had exploited the situation to the hilt to target the BJP and the Eknath Shinde faction where it hurt the most. More powers given to the departmental secretaries pending the reshuffle had also sent out a wrong signal.
The expansion shows that despite Mr Shinde being the CM, the government will be dominated by the BJP, which has not only got the numbers on its side but also experienced leaders from diverse regions and backgrounds.
Girish Mahajan, who is known to be close to Mr Fadnavis, was a certainty, as well as state BJP president Chandrakant Patil, who is known to have a close rapport with Union home minister Amit Shah.
Sudhir Mungantiwar is a senior state leader and former finance minister hailing from the Vidarbha region. Atul Save, whose father was a former Shiv Sena MP, is among the prominent faces from Marathwada region accommodated by the BJP. This region is a Shiv Sena stronghold where the BJP is seeking to make inroads. Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil is a veteran of sorts — hailing from the family in Ahmednagar district which started the first sugar cooperative in Asia some 75 years back. Mangal Prabhat Lodha is a prominent developer in the country.
The exclusion of Ashish Shelar indicates he may be tipped to be the next state BJP chief, succeeding Mr Patil. It suits the BJP fine as Mr Shelar hails from Mumbai where the party has to take on the Shiv Sena head on in the civic polls which are due soon. He is also one of the prominent Maratha faces of the BJP.
As compared to the BJP, the Shinde faction lacks depth in its ministerial order. But the chief minister has sought to make the best use of the talent available to him. Ministerships for Abdul Sattar and Sanjay Rathod could, however, cause some controversy. Only last year, BJP had secured success in its demand for the resignation of Mr Rathod as forest minister in the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government after the death by suicide by a young woman in Pune.
It needs to be understood that the group of 40-odd MLAs led by Mr Shinde that parted ways with the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena is a motley crowd that has come together only for the sake of power.
The carrot of further expansion of the ministry has been kept dangling and is expected to make matters cool at least for the next few months.
Extreme caution is the key as the government faces a tricky situation not only as regards the courts but also in regard to the cohesion between the coalition partners and also within them; and a step here or a step there could lead to trouble.
But the biggest concern is that the Supreme Court is yet to decide on a clutch of petitions filed by the Shiv Sena and the Shinde faction on various issues leading to the formation of the government. If the Shiv Sena’s pleas are accepted, the breakaway MLAs could also face disqualification. The issue of which is the “real” Shiv Sena is also pending before the Election Commission, which has been asked by the court against taking any action till it decides the case. Since there are several ticklish issues involved, it is unclear when the court will pronounce its verdict. A section of legal experts feel that the government is walking on thin ice.
The beleaguered Shiv Sena and Mr Thackeray are fighting with their backs to the wall to damage the splinter group as well as the BJP, but it will be a Herculean task. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah are past masters in the political game.
Whatever might be the claims and counter-claims of either side, the developments and signals over the past month show that the BJP is playing big brother and Devendra Fadnavis is the main power center, despite him being deputy CM. The remote control lies with Delhi, which is determined to finish the Shiv Sena politically.
Having succeeded in overthrowing the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, the BJP is trying methodically to grow its footprint, and the Cabinet expansion is proof of that.
The BJP’s plans could become clearer once the portfolio allocation is complete, but it is expected it will keep all the heavyweight ministries, including home, finance, urban development, to itself, and the Shinde faction will have to be content with the “passenger” ministries.
As the BJP sets its house in order in Maharashtra, it must be a bitter-sweet feeling. As it stabilises matters in Maharashtra by the expansion of the two-member Cabinet, things are falling apart in faraway Bihar.
In Patna, JD(U) leader and chief minister Nitish Kumar has dumped the BJP which he suspected was trying to promote a “Shinde” in the form of former Union minister R.C.P. Singh, a friend-turned-foe of Nitish. In an irony of sorts for the BJP, Bihar might see a Maha Vikas Aghadi-type experiment, with Nitish Kumar trying to cobble together an alliance with the RJD, Congress and other like-minded parties.