On August 2, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray received an unexpected telephone call at noon. It was from former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress. He wanted to know if the Shiv Sena would back the opposition—the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)—instead of its alliance partner, the BJP, on statehood for Vidarbha.
Earlier in the day, at the state legislature, the Congress and the NCP had demanded that Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis table a non-administrative resolution in favour of 'Akhand Maharashtra' (undivided Maharashtra). They knew that Fadnavis would not do it. He had already made it clear that only the Central government would decide on bifurcation of the state. Knowing that the Shiv Sena firmly opposed the creation of a Vidarbha state, Chavan wanted the party to openly oppose the BJP and support the ‘Akhand Maharashtra’ resolution; thus humiliating the Fadnavis government.
In the legislature, Fadnavis staved off the opposition with his parliamentary and oratory skills. He dug out records of the legislature and pointed out that a Congress legislator—Vijay Vadettiwar from Chandrapur district in Vidarbha—had moved a resolution for the formation of a Vidarbha state and that five other Congress legislators from Vidarbha had signed it. He said NCP leader Praful Patel had openly supported statehood for Vidarbha. “The Congress and the NCP are trying to create a rift in the ruling alliance,” said Fadnavis, emphasising that he had been sworn in as chief minister of 'Akhand Maharashtra' and that his government had never discussed the formation of a Vidarbha state.
While the BJP has advocated creation of smaller states in India, the Shiv Sena has always been for a united Maharashtra. Despite this dissonance, their political alliance has worked reasonably well since 1990. When they fought assembly elections separately in 2014, the BJP aggressively campaigned for the creation of a Vidarbha state. When the Shiv Sena revived its alliance with the BJP to join the government, it was agreed that the issue of Vidarbha's statehood would be kept on hold. In fact, in March, when advocate general Shrihari Aney was vocal in his support for a separate Marathwada state, the Shiv Sena was greatly displeased and Fadnavis had no choice but to let Aney quit.
On July 29, Nana Patole, the BJP MP from Gondia, moved a private resolution in the Lok Sabha for the creation of a Vidarbha state. Immediately, the Congress and NCP demanded that Fadnavis make a statement on the issue “to clear confusion in the minds of people of the state”.
Later that day, Shiv Sena minister Divakar Roate almost came to blows with BJP legislators from Vidarbha, who were shouting pro-statehood slogans. The next day, Maharashtra BJP president Raosaheb Danve added fuel to the fire: he said statehood for Vidarbha would be announced at an appropriate time and that the alliance with the Shiv Sena was purely ‘election centric’.
Opposition leader Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil responded to Danve, stating that all those who supported separate statehood for Vidarbha should resign from the legislative assembly and the Lok Sabha. Senior NCP legislator Jayant Patil said: “You have been elected because of the Modi wave and not because you campaigned for a separate Vidarbha. If you want statehood for Vidarbha, you must resign at once and seek re-election purely on the Vidarbha issue.”
It was following this war of words that the Congress and NCP asked Fadnavis to table a resolution in support of ‘Akhand Maharashtra’ and demanded that both houses pass the resolution unanimously. With Fadnavis unwilling to do so, the opposition asked the speaker’s permission to table it. This is where the Shiv Sena’s support was crucial. After the telephonic conversation between Chavan and Thackeray, senior Shiv Sena ministers went to Matoshree, the Thackeray family residence, for further discussions.
In the meantime, Fadnavis too, told the Shiv Sena leaders that it was a group of Congress legislators who had proposed to move the resolution for Vidarbha's statehood. When the Shiv Sena leaders returned to the legislature, they announced that they would not support any resolution backed by the opposition. “Shiv Sena (on its own) is capable of keeping Maharashtra united,” said PWD Minister Eknath Shinde. “We will never compromise on this issue.
If we have to choose between power and Maharashtra, we will happily quit the government. The opposition should not teach us about Maharashtra's pride. On the one hand they are bringing a one-line resolution on 'Akhand Maharashtra', but on the other hand their members are introducing non-administrative resolutions on the formation of Vidarbha. This is a clear case of double standards.” The Shiv Sena made it clear that it was satisfied by the statements made by the chief minister.
The BJP’s fragile alliance with the Shiv Sena may have passed the Vidarbha test, but cracks in the partnership are starting to show. The standoff on Vidarbha was just the latest in a series of verbal duels between the two parties. The toughest test for the saffron partners is a few months away, when they will fight each other in the 2017 municipal elections. For the time being, though, Fadnavis can take a breather.