Maharashtra: Political tightrope walk at its best

Print edition : August 14, 2020

Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar visiting a COVID hospital on May 18. Photo: Emmanual Yogini

Despite minor irritants among the coalition partners, the Maha Vikhas Aghadi government puts up a show of unity.

Amid the political upheaval in Rajasthan, all attention turned to Maharashtra with the question whether the State government would be next on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s list to be destabilised. Within political circles, the BJP has laid an informal bet that the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government, consisting of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress, will not complete its term.

When Jyotiraditya Scindia left the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh in March, an exultant BJP said it was only the beginning of its plan to decimate the Congress. Four months later came the Rajasthan fiasco and the exit of Sachin Pilot from the Congress. Though Pilot was not a trophy for the BJP since he refrained from going over to the saffron party, there is no doubt that his exit has caused a great deal of unease in Maharashtra.

The glue that holds the MVA together is political expediency. But as is the case with strange bedfellows, the very reason that brought them together could also be the reason for their separation.

The situation within the MVA is not yet a cause for worry. Internal wrangling apart, the main parties in the coalition realise that it is in their best interests to stay united. And the message was recently put out quite clearly.

The Shiv Sena newspaper Saamna annually runs a full-page interview with members of the Thackeray family. This year, however, Sanjay Raut, the paper’s executive editor and Sena MP, interviewed NCP leader Sharad Pawar. The message was clear: the coalition is strong and small irritations like the NCP trying to poach Sena corporators or disagreements over postings of police officers are par for the course.

Questionable transfers

There have, of course, been instances of Uddhav Thackeray acting in an inexplicable manner. A case in point is the overnight transfer of Praveen Pardeshi, the chief of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. Not only did Pardeshi have a rich experience in disaster management, he was also doing a commendable job of managing the COVID-19 pandemic in the early days when nothing much was known about it.

A slight tendency to be petulant and impetuous seems to be manifesting itself in Uddhav Thackeray. In the weeks following Pardeshi’s sudden transfer, five other civic chiefs from the surrounding Mumbai Metropolitan Region were also shunted out because the Chief Minister held them responsible for the surge of coronavirus cases in their jurisdiction. This is the jittery side of Uddhav Thackeray. These are the vulnerabilities that the BJP is probably noting and possibly will prey on when it thinks the time is right for it to strike.

The BJP regularly needles Uddhav Thackeray about his handling of COVID and it seems to be getting to him. Of late, bureaucrats say he is not as easy to contact as he was some months earlier. This is being attributed to the stress that he has been under. A Sena politician who is fervently loyal to the Thackeray family says, “Uddhavji is basically an artist, but he wants to do good for his State. He is inexperienced in the ways of politicians. He also has a lot to prove in terms of ensuring that the MVA stays stable so that the BJP cannot point a finger at him. He is very sensitive on this matter. It is a matter of personal pride with him that the MVA should succeed and stay for its full term and that he remains Chief Minister.”

This analysis fits in well with the opinion of a retired bureaucrat who says, “Uddhav does not yet have the thick skin of politicians. He is vulnerable to psychological pressures and the opposition could easily exploit this.”

In the unlikely coalition of the MVA, suspicions are easily aroused. Last year, just before the MVA formed the government, Ajit Pawar, senior NCP leader and Sharad Pawar’s nephew, was suddenly sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister in a Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government. The State was thrown into chaos because Ajit Pawar had jumped parties at a time when his parent party was all set to form a coalition government with the Sena. It lasted just five days before Ajit returned to the NCP. The inner workings of this episode remain a mystery and can be a cause of mistrust within the MVA.

Ram temple issue

If there is an immediate threat to the MVA, it will possibly come from the laying of the foundation stone for the temple in Ayodhya. The temple issue is a potential flashpoint within the MVA. Both the NCP and the Congress have always been on edge about the Sena leadership’s steadfast support to the Ram temple project in Ayodhya. So far there has been an agree-to-disagree policy on the issue between the Sena and the NCP and Congress. However, with the Prime Minister expected to lay the foundation stone for the temple in Ayodhya, Pawar has chosen to speak out, albeit in a mild manner, by questioning the need for the ceremony when the country is in a crisis.

Uddhav Thackeray, being passionately committed to building the temple, will not waver from it. His devotion to the idea is curious because it was initially never a core issue with Sainiks or Sena supporters. Indeed, when the Sena parted ways with the BJP, many of them cheered the move because they felt the goals of the Sena were being diluted by the BJP’s agenda. Hindutva was never part of the Sena’s original blueprint. It was introduced by Bal Thackeray as a means of getting on to the national political platform.

The weakest link

Since a chain is as strong as its weakest link, the Sena and the NCP need to pay more attention to the Congress. The party is the ‘junior-most’ in the coalition in terms of the number of MLAs it has, and has been complaining of being sidelined and kept out of crucial decision-making.

The latest instance of its complaint was when the State government launched the Mahajobs website on July 6. (The aim of the portal was to connect skilled and unskilled jobseekers with industries. Both jobseekers and potential employers could post their requirements on the website. The portal was considered an important step forward in rebuilding the State’s economy as it emerged during the lockdown.) There was considerable publicity for the portal, which carried photographs of Uddhav Thackeray, Ajit Pawar, and Minister of Industries and Mining Subhash Desai of the Shiv Sena, but there was no Congress representation in the gallery, which led Satyajit Tambe, State Youth Congress president, to tweet his rage at the exclusion of his party.

Overlapping interests

When the coalition was formed in 2019, there were interesting reactions from the supporters of its constituents. Though Sena supporters were relieved that they need not be under the wing of the BJP, which they had started seeing as a bully, they had certain apprehensions. In heartland Maharashtra, the Sena and the NCP are rivals. This was amply demonstrated by the NCP trying to lure into its fold some Sena corporators in the Parner Municipal Corporation. A subtle tug of war is on because the two parties have overlapping social and voter bases in Parner.

The NCP still has a hold over the Marathas while the Sena represents the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) who form about 53 per cent of the State’s population. The numerical dominance of OBCs has made them self-assured and assertive. One of their main demands is that the existing reservation quota of 27 per cent to OBCs should not be reduced because of a 2018 State government order that granted Marathas 16 per cent reservation in government jobs and higher education. The issue of the 16 per cent quota is currently in the court. Marathas, who have so far had the upper hand economically, socially and politically, are responding with equal determination to assert their supremacy.

It is only natural that the demands of the Sena’s and the NCP’s voter bases will translate into a battle for political supremacy. How their respective leaders handle this grass-roots battle remains to be seen.

As Chief Minister, Uddhav Thackeray has been a pleasant surprise for many. “We all thought Uddhav would be difficult to deal with,” says a bureaucrat in Mantralaya, “but he is a good listener and is willing to hear people out.” Uddhav Thackeray’s overall report card is positive. He listens to people, is willing to learn and be briefed, he asks questions and is not afraid to say he does not know. And, most importantly, from the point of view of the stability of the government, he uses Sharad Pawar as a sounding board. The relationship between the two goes back to Bal Thackeray’s early days in politics. The senior Thackeray and Pawar were friendly foes.

The thrust and parry of politics continues, but for the moment the MVA is stable in Maharashtra.