Maharashtra

Fighting on two fronts

Print edition : May 22, 2020

Health workers and nurses of Thane Municipal Corporation surveying citizens for any symptoms of COVID, at Pachpakhadi in Thane, Maharashtra. Photo: Vibhav Birwatkar

Migrant workers move towards the municipal office in South Mumbai to get medical certificates to travel to their native place, on May 5. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Uddhav Thackeray has to fight the pandemic and the BJP that is trying to destabilise the government in Maharashtra.

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has been fighting a war on two fronts. One, obviously against the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other against the Shiv Sena’s erstwhile political partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He is marginally ahead on both fronts.

As far as the handling of the pandemic is concerned, Uddhav has earned for himself some surprising praise.

Said a now-retired senior bureaucrat who used to be in Mantralaya during Bal Thackeray’s remote-control era: “Many people thought Uddhav would be like his father and in many ways he is like [him] in his determination to build a temple at Ayodhya. But in one very vital way Uddhav differs from Bal Thackeray. He is willing to learn. He acknowledges he has a lot to learn and he is willing to be guided by those he thinks know better. In that sense he is trusting too. I don’t want to name names, but he has learnt to trust one senior politician and now he is greatly under that gentleman’s able guidance. His tackling of the novel coronavirus in Maharashtra has been good. He has held true to a good balance of toughness and reassurance and there has been an element of transparency that the public seems to have recognised. That is why the lockdown in Maharashtra has been without incident.”

The praise is largely well-deserved, especially since Uddhav Thackeray has had to constantly watch his and his government’s back. In the five months he has been in office, he has had to fend off the BJP which, at every possible opportunity, has lunged to discredit and destabilise the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government. Condemning this, the retired bureaucrat said, “A responsible opposition is not opportunistic. During a crisis both sides should work together and forget party lines in the larger interest.”

This desirable larger interest was not on display on April 14 when more than 2,000 migrant workers gathered at Bandra station in the hope of returning to their home States. The chaos, even while Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (prohibiting the assembly of more than four people) was in force, gave rise to a brief but fierce political blame game. The MVA said it was an outcome of mischief-making (read BJP-engineered) while the BJP said the government had failed to maintain law and order. Home Minister Amit Shah gave Uddhav Thackeray a patronising rap on the knuckles, but he chose not to retaliate. A TV reporter was arrested and then released—a convenient scapegoat for all, it is believed.

Then came the lynching of two religious leaders and their driver in Gadchinchle village in Palghar district. In a web address, Uddhav Thackeray explained what had happened: “The two sadhus were travelling to Gujarat through back roads as there were curbs on travelling by the main roads. They were stopped at the border and asked to turn back. On their way back, they were stopped because of the rumours in this remote area that there were thieves around, and unfortunately, they were killed.’’

The BJP was quick to make use of the opportunity. Praveen Darekar, Leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, termed it a failure of the law and order machinery and called for the Home Minister’s resignation, but Uddhav Thackeray was firm and told his critics not to politicise or communalise the lynching. “Do not try to create misunderstandings. I spoke to Union Home Minister Amit Shah,” he said. “He knows there is no communal angle here. I told him we must search for all those fanning anger on social media. Those trying to inflame passions must desist from doing so. There is no Hindu-Muslim angle or communalism in this attack.”

Maharashtra Congress general secretary Sachin Sawant pointed out that the village panchayat where the lynching took place was a BJP stronghold with a BJP person heading the panchayat. Furthermore, there is not a single Muslim household in the village. Sawant also said that the BJP should not forget that four lynchings had taken place during its term but no Minister had resigned.

Election issue

One issue that has weighed on Uddhav Thackeray from November 28 when he became the Chief Minister is that he is not an elected member of either House in the Maharashtra legislature. The constitutional framework gives him six months from that day to win a seat electorally. In March, the government wrote to the Governor asking him to use his powers of nomination to get Uddhav Thackeray a seat in the Legislative Council. A request not so unusual but one that received no reply.

As the May 27 deadline drew nearer, Uddhav Thackeray spoke to the Prime Minister. He apparently did not mince words and said that it was nothing short of an attempt to destabilise Maharashtra politically. The outcome was an announcement of elections on May 21. “Considering that there is a crisis in the State it would have been a reassuring and, I may add, very simple thing for the Honourable Governor to have assented to the nomination,” said a source in Mantralaya.

It has been a tightrope walk between the State and the Centre, with the latter invariably letting party affiliations dictate its decisions. Three examples highlight this. Since early April, Maharashtra has been asking for rail services to help migrant labourers return to their home States, but the Centre has denied this, resulting in terrible human suffering and huge pressures on the State. With the highest number of virus cases in the country, the State clearly requires more funds.

Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar wrote to the Prime Minister and the Finance Minister saying Maharashtra required an additional grant of Rs.1 lakh crore in 2020-21 to help revive the economy. Earlier Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar had asked for a Rs.25,000 crore package and early disbursement of GST (goods and services tax) dues of over Rs.16,000 crore.

IFSC in Gandhinagar

Instead of facilitating an inflow of funds, the Centre chose to take away a big economic opportunity. On May 3, Sharad Pawar slammed the Centre for its decision to set up an International Financial Service Centre (IFSC) in Gandhinagar, Gujarat. His anger stemmed from the fact that although Maharashtra gives the highest contribution to government securities, the IFSC was given to Gujarat. In a letter to the Prime Minister, Pawar said out of the Rs.26,000,00 crore funds that the Centre receives from States, Maharashtra contributes Rs.5,95,000 crore compared with Gujarat’s Rs.1,40,000 crore.

Pawar’s letter states: “It will not only cause financial damage to the country but also bring international discredit to it by undermining the importance of Mumbai, which has been recognised as world’s top ten centres of commerce in terms of global financial flow generating 6.16 per cent of India’s GDP and accounting for 25 per cent of industrial output and 70 per cent of capital transactions to country’s economy.”

The letter further states: “I request the Centre to reconsider the decision to shift IFSC in Gujarat and relocate it in Mumbai on merit basis and I expect the Prime Minister will take a rational, judicious decision keeping aside the State politics and consider it as an issue of utmost national importance.”

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