Uddhav Thackeray's staying power amid BJP hostility, internal rumblings

Nearly two years after the Maha Vikas Aghadi took charge of Maharashtra, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has managed to steer his ship in the face of hostility from the BJP and rumblings within the alliance.

Published : Oct 08, 2021 06:00 IST

It has been almost two years since Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar engineered a masterstroke to create an unlikely alliance of his party, the Congress and the Shiv Sena and form the government in Maharashtra. Shocked and stung at being beaten by the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), as the alliance is called, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has still not reconciled itself to losing the State despite winning, along with the Shiv Sena, more seats than the Congress and the NCP in the Assembly election.

Pawar took advantage of the BJP central leadership’s refusal to share the Chief Minister’s post. It did not take much to persuade Uddhav Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief, to dump his party’s partner of three decades and join forces with the NCP and the Congress.

From then on until now, the BJP has focussed on destabilising the government. While there have been minor skirmishes between the BJP and the MVA throughout the MVA’s term, some incidents merit special mention. After a homeless woman was raped and murdered in Mumbai on September 10, the BJP chose to make an issue of women’s safety in Mumbai under the MVA’s rule. Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari even wrote to the government asking it to consider holding a two-day Assembly session specifically on the matter of women’s safety. The Governor’s letter was prompted by a demand from three women BJP legislators.

On September 20, Uddhav Thackeray replied with a four-page letter suggesting that the Governor write to the Union government asking for a four-day session in Parliament on crimes against women in the country. Mincing no words, he said that the following issues could be discussed: New Delhi’s image as a “rape capital”, the rape cases of Hathras, Unnao, Badaun as well as similar cases in Gujarat and Uttarakhand.

He also said that he understood the Governor’s feelings, but pointed out that the government was “doing its work” and that the suggestion to convene a special session would create a new controversy. He said: “While anti-government people are demanding a special session, the Governor is also supporting them and making the same demand. It is detrimental for the parliamentary democratic process.” Also read: MVA government goes through a rough patch

The MVA and the Governor have come head to head on some occasions. In October 2020, the Governor suggested that places of worship be opened, at a time when the city’s COVID-19 numbers were still high. The Governor asked in a letter whether Uddhav Thackeray had suddenly turned “secular” and was, therefore, not opening places of worship. Uddhav Thackeray replied that the word “secular” was in the very same Constitution on which the Governor took his oath of office and that he did not need the Governor to remind him of his Hindutva beliefs.

Another simmering issue that took months to resolve was the Governor’s inordinate delay in forwarding names recommended for membership to the Upper House in the State legislature.

Allegations and cases

Allegations and filing of cases seem to be part of the game. The BJP’s Kirit Somaiya seems to have made it his mission to make allegations and seek investigations into them. On September 21, Somaiya asked the Enforcement Directorate to look into alleged frauds committed by the NCP’s Hassan Mushriff, Minister for Rural Development, at the Appasaheb Nalawade Gadhinglaj Cooperative and Sar Senapati sugar factories in Kolhapur. Somaiya alleged that the former had been handed over to a private firm.

He told mediapersons that the State government, citing law and order issues, prevented him from travelling to Kolhapur to investigate further. Somaiya said this was illegal since he had alerted the Kolhapur District Collector a week before about his trip. On September 27, he reiterated that he would go to Kolhapur to file a complaint of fraud against Mushriff.

Also on Somaiya’s list is the Shiv Sena’s Anil Parab, Minister of Transport. Somaiya has accused Parab of being involved in a scam regarding the construction of a holiday resort in Dapoli in Ratnagiri district on the Konkan coast. Parab has not only denied the allegations but filed a Rs.100 crore defamation suit against Somaiya.

Somaiya’s animosity towards the Shiv Sena goes back a few years. In 2017, he had been gunning for the Shiv Sena in the Mumbai municipal elections and made caustic remarks against Uddhav Thackeray. Just before the 2019 general election, the Shiv Sena did not want the BJP to field him again in his Lok Sabha constituency of Mumbai North East and the BJP acquiesced. Now that the two parties have ended their partnership, Somaiya clearly sees the Shiv Sena as fair game.

Internal trouble

But it is not always the BJP that is trying to dent the MVA. At times it is an internal job. For instance, almost from the very start the Congress has expressed its resentment at being the juniormost partner in the coalition despite being the oldest party. More recently, Anant Geete, a Shiv Sena Minister, raised eyebrows when he said his party’s association with the Congress and the NCP was just an “adjustment” and that Pawar, who had backstabbed the Congress to form the NCP, could never be a “guru” for Shiv Sainiks.

Senior Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut stepped in quickly with an official statement that acknowledged Pawar as a “big leader” and a “primary pillar of the Maharashtra government”. He said Anant Geete’s statement was his personal opinion and “not the statement of the party”. The BJP knows that Pawar is the glue that keeps the coalition together and has kept him in its sights.

Other irritants for the MVA have been former Shiv Sena leaders Raj Thackeray and Narayan Rane. Raj Thackeray demanded regular immersion of Ganesh idols during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival and has been pushing for reopening places of worship. The MVA sees him as no more than an annoyance.

In August, Narayan Rane stated that he would like to slap Uddhav Thackeray. The State government saw this as a threat and arrested him. While no one believed that there really was a case, it sent a strong message to all that Uddhav Thackeray would not hesitate to exercise his power. The arrest also pacified his party rank and file who had to be restrained from going on the rampage.

Narayan Rane had quit the Shiv Sena to join the Congress. He later tried to join the BJP but Uddhav Thackeray used his influence with the BJP when the two parties were still partners and prevented it. Rane then started his own party, which he merged with the BJP in 2019.

While Uddhav Thackeray has been praised for his handling of the COVID crisis, of late he seems to have rushed into some decisions. The BJP has been taunting the MVA on its reluctance to open up places of worship, malls, theatres and schools. Until early September, Uddhav Thackeray was clear that there was a strong possibility of a third wave, which he said was knocking on the door. But by the end of the month he was either convinced that this was not the case or was pushed into a corner politically, because the government began making announcements about the imminent opening of all these places and the likelihood of schools starting in October. Also read: Maratha reservation confusion

Another factor fuelling the low-level political turmoil in Maharashtra is the Mumbai municipal elections, due to be held early next year. Alliances for local body elections are puzzling because friends become foes and vice versa. The parties have not made their choices yet, but one thing is clear: all parties will try to grab the biggest slice of the country’s richest and most prestigious local body. The Shiv Sena has dominated Mumbai local body elections for almost two decades but the BJP has been narrowing the gap consistently over the years.

It has been a rocky 22 months but Uddhav Thackeray has managed to steer his ship with considerable success. He has certainly demolished the BJP’s claims in 2019 that his government would not last more than a few months. And that continues to be a thorn in the BJP’s side.

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