Govt slows down as cautious CM Uddhav Thackeray still in ‘learning’ mode

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Uddhav Thackeray took oath as Chief Minister on November 28 last year. (File photo)

With no previous administrative or legislative experience, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has been treading cautiously since taking over the reins of the state on November 28, appearing to be more in “learning” mode than in “doing” mode, say bureaucrats and ministers.

“Now he is on track. He has a certain style of functioning and is conducting the work as per his style,” said a Sena minister, who did not want to be named.

Political watchers see Thackeray’s cautious approach as capturing the reality of the daunting challenge he faces as head of a complex alliance with the Congress and NCP.

During his two-month stint, Thackeray has added many firsts to his name, starting with being the first to sit on the chief minister’s chair without ever participating in electoral politics.

He is also responsible for shifting the state’s power centre from the cocoon of South Mumbai to his residence Matoshree in Bandra, where he prefers to conduct a good part of the state’s administrative work, apart from holding political meetings.

But Thackeray’s contrast with his predecessor is evident. Unlike former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who repeatedly declared himself to bein “mission mode”, Thackeray is more laid-back, arrives at Mantralaya at around noon — he meets police officers and bureaucrats, including from the publicity wing, at Matoshree before arriving at the secretariat — and his workday ends at 6 pm or 7 pm.

Unlike his predecessors, he has given away all the big portfolios, including Home and Urban Development, keeping with him only General Administration and Law & Judiciary and two other departments, which has reduced his workload compared to previous chief ministers, and may also help him avoid bringing controversy upon himself.

The decision to ease the administrative burden comes from the Thackeray family’s decision to shield Thackeray from undue physical stress. Though a teetotaler and an avid badminton player, Thackeray has undergone two angioplasty procedures for multiple blockages.

Though the government is heading into its first Budget later this month, official sources said the chief minister holds an average of just five meetings daily at Mantralaya, mostly department review meetings, to understand both policy matters and administration issues.

“His emphasis is on finding out about policy matters, where he can make more of an impact. In the review meetings, he asks the departments their issues or expectations and then tells them what his expectations are,” said the Sena minister, pointing out policy decisions such as the farm loan waiver, Shiv Bhojan and five-day work week for government employees.

Another Sena minister said the chief minister is “taking time to understand everything before taking decisions because he wants to avoid all loopholes and does not want to commit any mistakes” that could taint the Thackeray name with any allegations.

An official from the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) said Thackeray gives enough time for the meetings to understand all schemes and issues and is in no hurry to wind up meetings early. “When the review meeting of dairy development and animal husbandry department was held recently, we felt that it would be over in half an hour. But, it went on for more than one and half hour. The chief minister was keen to understand all schemes and issues and then give his direction on it,” an official said.

He also holds one-on-one meetings with department secretaries.

A bureaucrat said Thackeray does not hesitate to ask about things that he doesn’t know. “He asks officials to explain to him in detail. He has a certain comfort level that has led to officials becoming more enthusiastic to talk to him in meetings. Not only top officials, but he gives opportunity to any official who raises his hand to speak up. He listens to everyone carefully and does not get bored of long discussions or meetings and asks officials for their views,” the bureaucrat said.

With Fadnavis, senior officials did most of the talking. With Thackeray, junior officials keen to make an impression also speak up and are heard by the chief minister with patience.

His aides emphasise that Thackeray works on weekends as well. “Last Sunday, he went to the Maha IT office to see the trial run of the software for farm loan waiver scheme, how it functions, whether there are any glitches, etc. He wanted to see it to ensure the smooth implementation of the farm loan waiver,” an official said.

Even so, the impression is of a cautious chief minister who is yet to come to grips with holding office.

Two rapid fire decisions — farm loan waiver up to Rs 2 lakh and the Rs 10 per plate meal scheme — have largely remained symbolic. Even an ally like Raju Shetti has dubbed the loan waiver an ‘eyewash”. Nearly two months into his stint, Thackeray has spent little time articulating how, exactly, he was planning to execute his proposed reforms, even as he walks the ideological tightrope between the three parties, in matters such as Bhima Koregaon and the National Population Register and the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Bureaucrats say they are waiting and watching for the big round of transfers at the top most levels that usually follows a change in government. Thackeray has made a few transfers, but there is no “all change” yet. “Senior level bureaucrats seen as close to the previous regime are awaiting a reshuffle. It has slowed down the pace of work,” an official said.

As a result, files are piling up in all departments in anticipation of a merry go round.

Thackeray also runs a lean CMO. Sources said Thackeray’s CMO has around 80 people, while the previous one used to buzz with about 120. Also, he has not made any political or non-government appointments to his office except for Sudhir Naik, a retired joint municipal commissioner, who is Officer on Special Duty. Fadnavis’s CMO had many OSDs who were outside appointments.

Those around Thackeray say that his style of administration is low-key and direct. Thackeray has so far come across as a man who refrains from posturing or assuming the affectations of high office.

Uddhav’s five key aides

Subhash Desai (77), Industries Minister

Desai is among the senior-most leaders in the party and enjoys good rapport with Uddhav Thackeray since three decades. While Uddhav did not induct the two other senior ministers from the previous BJP-led government, Uddhav inducted Desai in the cabinet, who has been given the Industries portfolio that Desai handled in the previous government. Sources in the Sena said Desai’s administrative and legislative experience is one of the reasons that Uddhav relies on him heavily.

“He takes his decisions on his own. I just give him the pros and cons of an issue or policy.”

Eknath Shinde (56), Urban Development Minister

After the Assembly poll results were announced last October, Shinde was elected as the leader of Sena’s legislative wing. Shinde was the “go to guy” in the previous BJP-Shiv Sena government for party workers and MLAs. Shinde is one of the few Sena leaders, apart from Uddhav, with some mass following. He is the “most resourceful” leader for the party and can get things done, said sources.

“He discusses with everyone and takes his colleagues into confidence while taking decisions. I will work towards fulfilling his vision of providing government benefits to the poor people in the state.”

Ravindra Waikar (61), Chief Coordinator in CMO

Waikar, third-term MLA from Jogeshwari (East), was a Minister of State for Housing and Higher and Technical Education in the previous BJP-led government. Sources said he has good experience of administration and has been appointed to deal with the issues of citizens, MPs, MLAs that will reduce the workload of Uddhav. He will be a single point contact person in CMO for Sena leaders, said sources.

“I will work to fulfill the vision of Uddhavji and will do my best for it.”

Ajoy Mehta (60), Chief Secretary

Since Uddhav has taken over as Chief Minister, he has been consulting Mehta on all the administrative and policy decisions. Sources said Mehta gained Thackeray’s confidence in his tenure as municipal commissioner in the Mumbai civic body as Mehta put a lot of projects from Shiv Sena’s manifesto on fast-track and did not obstruct them, a Sena functionary said.

“Everyone does his job and we work as a team. This is the tradition of Maharashtra.”

Anil Parab (55), Transport Minister

Parab handles all legal matters of the Shiv Sena. Parab played a key role in the party moving to the SC after Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari refused to grant extension of three days to gather support for government formation. Sources said Uddhav consults him for inputs on civic and other issues.

“Whatever the responsibility is given to me by CM, I try to fulfill that.”