From working in a beer brewery in Thane and driving an autorickshaw to make ends meet, to becoming the most powerful leader in the present Shiv Sena after the Thackerays, Eknath Shinde, 58, looked set on Tuesday to join the ranks of leaders like Chhagan Bhujbal and Narayan Rane who had earlier managed to engineer a split in the Sena.
Worryingly for the Thackerays, Shinde has the loyalty of many party MLAs for being accessible to MLAs – especially when an appointment at Matoshree can be tough – and being generous with economic largesse.
The Shinde family originally belongs to Satara district and moved to Thane in the ’70s when Shinde was just a child. His start was with odd jobs, at places such as a beer brewery and fishery, apart from his stint as an autorickshaw driver, before he began his association with the Shiv Sena in the ’80s.
Shinde soon gained proximity to then Thane district Sena president Anand Dighe, who ran the local unit with an iron fist and was instrumental in making the Shiv Sena a dominant force in the area. As Shinde modelled his appearance too after his mentor, Dighe had rewarded his loyalty with helping him win a seat in the Thane Municipal Corporation in 1997.
Dighe was also there for Shinde when he lost his children to a drowning accident in 2000, which caused him to withdraw into a shell. Dighe is said to have goaded Shinde back, making him the leader of the house in the Thane Municipal Corporation.
After Dighe’s death in August 2001, Shinde filled the void left in the Shiv Sena’s Thane unit. In 2004, he became an MLA, winning the Kopri-Pachpakhadi seat, and has represented the constituency for four consecutive terms.
Like Dighe, Shinde is a man of few words, not known for oratorial flourishes. What he has is an agitational and belligerent style of functioning and, till now, deep loyalty to the Sena – all qualities that have helped his rise in the party.
The death of Bal Thackeray and emergence of Uddhav Thackeray also helped leaders like Shinde to cement their position in the party, as the old guard was sidelined.
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Outside the party, Shinde made his first political impact when Uddhav, who had fallen out with the BJP, made him the Leader of Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly. Shinde was among the section of party leaders who helped patch up ties between the two parties. Shinde later became Minister for Public Works Department.
Since 2019, when the Shiv Sena dumped the BJP to form an unlikely triumvirate with the Congress and NCP to form the government in Maharashtra, there have been constant murmurs about Shinde’s unhappiness with the political arrangement. Many within the Shiv Sena and its allies the Congress and NCP have long feared Shinde to be the weak link as the BJP made constant attacks on the government. The impression has been further strengthened by the BJP sparing Shinde even as it went after all other major MVA leaders.
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According to sources, leaders like Shinde also see themselves stymied in the Sena, with Uddhav choosing to be CM and actively promoting his son in both the party and government – unlike Bal Thackeray who never took a position in government. The situation is unlikely to change any time soon.
According to Sena sources, the final straw for Shinde might have been the Shiv Sena’s decision to override his suggestion that the party contest the Thane Municipal Corporation polls alone. He was categorically told that the party would contest in alliance with the NCP and Congress, with Shinde reportedly taking affront to both the content and the manner of the communication, via leaders including Sanjay Raut.
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On another note, Shinde has built a public profile recently with a film on Dighe, which he is said to have helped produce. Shinde’s photo has been a prominent part of the publicity material that has been appearing in Marathi newspapers and television for the past few months. The movie portrays Shinde as a courageous Young Turk, always in the forefront, relentlessly working for the common man.