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Uddhav Thackeray: Has the Sainik gained enough acceptance?

Print edition : Jun 17, 2022 T+T-

Uddhav Thackeray: Has the Sainik gained enough acceptance?

Uddhav Thackeray was a reluctant politician who came into his own during the pandemic and taught the BJP a lesson.

On November 28, 2019, when Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray took the oath as the 18th Chief Minister of Maharashtra, there was a collective groan from most people. Criticisms ranged from “What does he know of government and governance?”, “At least [Devendra] Fadnavis had some administrative experience”, and “He’s got the post just because he’s Bal Thackeray’s son” to “The Sena criticises dynastic rule and indulges in it”. These were all true when they were uttered.

Broadly, Thackeray has three big achievements. Despite zero administrative experience, he helmed Maharashtra—supposedly the worst-affected State—through COVID-19. He has kept the BJP at bay despite his former political partners gunning for him at every opportunity. And even though the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) is a coalition of convenience, he has managed to keep it together and run a government. Of course, all this is only because of three other qualities of Thackeray: He listens, he consults people with experience, and then he acts. Most of all, he has the support and advice of master strategist Sharad Pawar of the NCP.

Maharashtra sends 48 Ministers to Parliament, second only to Uttar Pradesh. Mumbai being the financial hub of the country, it is a given that some level of access and control will be exerted by the ruling power over the wealth. Moreover, as in the case of the Sena, if the ruling party also dominates the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, then it has a control over its humongous budget of close to Rs.46,000 crore.

With its secular history, Maharashtra had kept the BJP out for decades, and it is only in the recent past that the party got its foot in the door. The BJP managed this largely because it tied up with the Sena, a deal that was brokered by the late Pramod Mahajan, who, while acknowledging the need for this, also held the Sena in contempt. This contempt rankled with the Sena, and the breaking point came in 2019. The Sena clearly has the upper hand now as it and the Congress and the NCP provide a formidable opposition to the BJP in Maharashtra and at the Centre.

Thackeray came to the Chief Minister’s chair in a cloud of scepticism, which dissipated surprisingly fast. The surprise first came in Mantralaya, the administrative headquarters of the State. Bureaucrats were initially apprehensive of dealing with a Chief Minister who was wholly untutored in politics but were “pleasantly shocked”, as one remarked, to find that he “actually listened”. He was unafraid to show he did not know and made it clear that he wanted to learn. “He was hungry for details,” said the same bureaucrat, remarking that this was highly unusual for a senior leader. But Thackeray showed he had a quick grasp of issues. He listened, consulted, and then made a decision.

Thackeray was still taking baby steps as Chief Minister when the country was thrown into the tumult of lockdowns and COVID-19. Again, he consulted, listened, and acted, adding a dose of his own compassion. He realised the gravity of the situation with regard to access to food, especially for migrant labour. His government started the Shiv Bhojan Thali, which was originally for Rs.10, then brought down to Rs.5 and then given free. And for the rest of the citizens, he assured them that the State would not run out of food. He appealed to employers to keep paying wages, especially of domestic staff. He asked that lower-level unskilled workers be kept in their jobs even if they were just paid minimum wages.

His lockdown policies were tough but largely compassionate. One of the problems that migrants returning to their villages faced was ostracism. The fear was that they would have brought the virus with them. Maharashtra has a system of guardian Ministers where one Minister is appointed for each of the 36 districts of the State. All the guardian Ministers were told to ensure that the ostracism was halted. Likewise, when there were a few instances of police wielding their lathis among crowds of people desperately trying to leave Mumbai, Thackeray ordered the authorities to be understanding of their desperation.

In a way the isolation of the lockdown possibly gave Thackeray some breathing space. Of course, he was dealing with a crisis, but he had the luxury of focussing primarily on that. Thackeray took to social media to stay in touch and to let people know what was happening. His Facebook Live and his television speeches presented the situation as it was with no attempt to cover up.

Perhaps, the first public indication of respect for Thackeray was when people started referring to him as Thackeray and not Uddhav. It was a sign that he was no longer seen as the entitled son of Bal Thackeray and that he had grown into his own persona and was not second to his father.

Thackeray’s time as Chief Minister has also seen a shift in power at Mantralaya. This is Ajit Pawar’s second time as Deputy Chief Minister. In his earlier term, the NCP politician wielded considerable power, but in the MVA government, the public aspect of his post has been drastically reduced. What Thackeray has done is consolidate power. He has made his voice the predominant voice for the public from Mantralaya. And yet, there are no shades of self-importance or megalomania. This is quite in contrast to the autocratic one-man-one-party style of Bal Thackeray.

But possibly the best aspect of Thackeray has been his steering of the MVA. To manage three diverse parties like the NCP, the Congress, and his own Sena is akin to being a talented ringmaster. Undoubtedly, he has had a great tutor in the form of Pawar, but apart from a few rumblings of favouritism, none of the problems that must be arising in this odd coalition has really hampered the functioning of government.

For secular citizens, the best aspect of the MVA has been that it has effectively opposed the BJP. Indeed, the formation of the MVA was completely based on anti-BJP feelings. Thackeray has held the tri-party coalition together better than his predecessor, the BJP’s Fadnavis, did with the Sena-BJP coalition. His combative ways caused a lot of friction between the then partners.

In his two and a half years of rule, Thackeray has taken most of the flak from the BJP but has remained unflappable. He has ignored public jibes and challenges from the BJP. The best examples of this were during the lockdown when he adopted a quiet, reassuring tone when addressing the State. From time to time, he would throw a few barbs at the BJP leadership, but apart from this, he refused to be drawn by the taunts and challenges of the opposition.

Nevertheless, he continues to be the BJP’s primary target. Critics point to the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case, the alleged plan to bomb Mukesh Ambani’s house, the subsequent plot of police corruption that was exposed, and the arrest of Aryan Khan in a drug case (now proved to be a frame-up). They say this is what the Thackeray-led MVA is all about. Supporters of Thackeray (which interestingly include many former vociferous critics of the Sena) succinctly say that they are all incidents manufactured by the BJP’s dirty tricks department.

Ever since Thackeray broke their three-decade-old partnership and partnered with the Congress and the NCP, the BJP have vowed revenge. The erstwhile Sena-BJP combine won the 2019 State election, but the BJP made a fatal mistake when it refused to acknowledge that the chief ministership was to be shared through the five-year term between the Sena and itself. Enraged at this break of a promise, Thackeray called off the partnership. This was the first indication of the steel within the man. He said at the time that he stuck to his guns because he felt that the Sena had a right to the post of Chief Minister and he really could not accept the BJP’s denial of their agreement.

Many thought Thackeray was committing political suicide. This was another bitter point for Thackeray: the Sena was the senior partner, it was a sons-of-the- soil party, and yet, it was being treated with condescension. This ruptured the old partnership and it showed an aspect of Thackeray’s personality. The BJP tried to woo Thackeray back, but he was adamant. Politically immature, some might say, or that he did not know how to play the game. Integrity, others would say; a man who expects a promise to be kept. It is easy to agree with the former but too early to give a thumbs up to the latter because there are dark sides to Thackeray that are reminiscent of the old Sena.

While there has not been any overtly communal or anti-Muslim comment or action, Thackeray firmly asserts his commitment to Hindutva though he has learnt to qualify it by saying it is all about belief in Hinduism and not about aggression against Islam. But somehow this mildness does not quite ring true because he ardently supports the building of a temple at Ayodhya and also does not lose any opportunity to remind everyone (especially the BJP) that Sainiks were among those who took part in demolishing the Babri Masjid. When his government completed 100 days, he and his family went to Ayodhya to give thanks. But despite his allegiance to Hindutva, he does not mock secularism like his late father did. There seem to be shades of live-and-let-live as far as religious matters are concerned, but then again, this has not really been put to a rigorous test. His alliance partners are dedicated to secular thought, which makes the MVA partnership all the more odd, but the relationship is a working one, and there have been no communal outbreaks in the State.

Thackeray has shown a surprisingly diplomatic side of himself that prefers not to make internal quarrels public. There have been instances when his Ministers have jumped the gun and made public announcements, and Thackeray has handled the situation with a cool head. When the NCP’s Nawab Malik, Minister for Minority Affairs, told the media that the government had decided to grant Muslims 5 per cent reservation in education, Thackeray refused to be forced to commit to this by saying the issue was sub judice. In a similar incident relating to reservation demands by the Maratha and Dhangar communities, he just let the matter blow over by not reacting to the Congress-created clamour. Other politicians would have tried to get political gains from such incendiary issues. Interestingly, his handling of the matters was like a lesson because neither the NCP nor the Congress brought them up again.

As far as environmental matters go, Thackeray has shown an interest and not tossed them aside as politicians are wont to do. Part of this is because of his own background in nature photography and part is because his son Aaditya is an active Minister of Environment and Climate Change and also probably because his other son, Tejas, is a conservationist and wildlife researcher. But though Thackeray is willing to lend an ear to environmental issues, one black mark against his party is its support of the controversial coastal road. This construction of elevated and underwater roads runs alongside the western coast of Mumbai and has destroyed not only a scenic seafront but ravaged shore and rockpool life.

From being thought of as Sharad Pawar’s puppet, Thackeray has shown that he has grown into his role as Chief Minister. His moderate approach has influenced Sena cadres, who have been forced to follow their leader and alter their thuggish image. He is Maharashtra-focussed and intent on remaining in power along with his allies.

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