Just as a strange turn of circumstances saw Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray occupy the Chief Minister’s chair, it was a similar twist of fate that found his regime battling the fallout of an unexpected global health crisis.
As Maharashtra emerges as a Covid hotspot, the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress-led ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA)’ government has to fight multiple battles. This includes managing the public health fallout, mobilization of resources and countering the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is seeking to corner the government in a fresh version of ‘Operation Lotus.’
Six months after he took charge as the Chief Minister, murmurs against Uddhav’s style of functioning are becoming evident. Whispers from the corridors of power suggest that some ministers and legislators from the ruling alliance are not too happy at his style of functioning.
As the health system strains under the mounting pressure of coronavirus cases and with indications that the worst may be yet to come, the state government is nearing the end of its honeymoon period.
While this is not the first time that the Shiv Sena has found itself with its back to the wall, the present situation is different. Now, the government is not led by a Manohar Joshi or a Narayan Rane, but by Uddhav, who is the first from the Thackeray clan to hold a public office.
Traditionally, the Thackeray’s have chosen to stay away from electoral politics. In 1995, when the Shiv Sena-BJP formed their government in Maharashtra, Shiv Sena supremo, late Bal Thackeray, exercised the authority of a “remote control,” thus acquiring the halo of a renunciate — one who was in striking distance of power, yet chose to shun it.
As the one leading the government, Uddhav has been exposed to greater public scrutiny, including that about his administrative skills.
As a legislator supporting the ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA)’ regime notes, it would be unfair to pin the blame solely on the state government for the present pandemic, as it is not a political, but a public health crisis.
But, successive state governments and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which is being controlled by the Shiv Sena for over three decades, deserve a share of the brickbats for abetting the gradual takeover of the health sector by private players. Today, many such private healthcare providers are being accused of abdicating their responsibility during the crisis.
Uddhav, the legislator noted, cut his teeth in the Shiv Sena through durbari politics, and was seen as trying to use this template in government by controlling it through a clutch of chosen babus. The limitations of this top-down approach, as well as his lack of legislative and administrative experience may become obvious in the present circumstances, he claimed.
But, the Centre’s decision to impose a sudden lockdown and the delay in resuming trains for migrants to leave for their home states, may have exacerbated the situation, the legislator stressed.
Even senior Shiv Sena leaders admit that the patience of people in Mumbai and the surrounding Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), which forms the party’s bastion, is running thin. They note that the government may have fallen short in managing the spread of coronavirus in slums and other congested areas in Mumbai, which is the worst hit by the pandemic.
The buck has to stop somewhere, and it is imperative that the parties in the MVA, especially the Sena, which is in the driving seat, may have to pay the price, they admit.
Hard-bitten Shiv Sainiks complain that while this government is run by the NCP on the ground, it may be the Shiv Sena, which will be left shouldering the blame for any slip-ups. Rent-seeking by those in the system in times of such economic and social crisis will leave a lingering sense of bitterness in the minds of people, they note.
The BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, who is yet to come to terms with his demotion from the treasury to opposition benches, is going all out at the government for its handling of the Covid situation. Not to be undone, former Shiv Sena chief minister Narayan Rane, who is now with the BJP, met Govenor BS Koshyari, who is emerging as a parallel power centre, and sought President’s rule in the state.
On the record, Fadnavis claims they do not want to play politics in such troubled times, and are not in a hurry to return to power. The leader of opposition has charged that the government will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.
BJP leaders point to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s statements that the party is not the decision maker in Maharashtra, and NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s lack of credentials as a reliable ally, as indicators about all not being well in the MVA.
While Uddhav has made frequent appearances to address the people from time to time, the near absence of leaders from the Congress and NCP from the public glare is revealing, they claim, while stating there can be no smoke without fire.
The Uddhav Thackeray government will also have to contend with the looming economic crisis, with a section of the toiling masses, which survives hand-to-mouth on subsistence wages, being pushed to the brink of penury.
For a party, which was born on nativist agenda, the Shiv Sena will also be under pressure to ensure that the economic migrants from outside states who have left for their homes, are replaced with the sons-of-the-soil.
Seasoned political hands note that the crisis and looming economic disruption will be a godsend for a state government led by a regional formation to renegotiate Centre-state relations.
Maharashtra, which is seen as the most developed state, contributes the most monies to the Centre’s kitty. Despite this, it has been a long-standing grouse that it gets the shorter end of the stick in favour of lesser developed states when it comes to devolution of central funds.
As Shiv Sena insider claims, the saving grace for Uddhav is that he has so far been faced with a set of opponents on whom he could be one up using their own weaknesses. This includes his estranged cousin and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) Raj Thackeray, Narayan Rane or more recently, Devendra Fadnavis, whose bid to walk away with the NCP after an early morning swearing-in with deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, ended in a fiasco.
So, will Uddhav again emerge unscathed from this trial by fire or will the MVA government run out of its share of the proverbial nine lives?
Like most evolving political scenarios, only time will tell.
Dhaval Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas.’ Views are personal.