Mumbai: Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, in his first stint in government, has left everyone surprised with the way he’s been handling the coronavirus crisis in Maharashtra.
With the government functioning at only 5 per cent of its capacity, Thackeray’s Facebook Live interactions with the people, where he outlines the gravity of the situation and the measures being taken by the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, has earned him many admirers. Thackeray is being assisted by an experienced team at the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) and his son Aaditya, who is also a minister in the cabinet.
From a reluctant politician, Uddhav Thackeray has emerged as a general leading the fight against Covid-19. When he took over as chief minister in November 2019, Thackeray was dismissed in conversations as a “puppet in the hands of Sharad Pawar”. But in these trying times, his calm demeanour is helping keep the panic down, say his worst critics.
‘Best head for Maharashtra’
Kumar Ketkar, senior journalist and Congress Rajya Sabha MP, was never a fan of Thackeray. But the past week has changed his perception of the chief minister.
“Uddhav was perceived to be lazy, complacent and not known for his decibel rhetoric. It was thought that he could be easily manipulated. Even Sharad Pawar has not been able to manipulate Uddhav. He has a mind of his own,” said Ketkar.
“In today’s situation, Uddhav is the best head for Maharashtra, as he brings with him a calm energy and a fresh outlook,” he said.
Since Covid-19 hit Maharashtra, there have been hundreds of WhatsApp messages, tweets and FB comments praising Thackeray and his style of getting work done. Filmmaker Pankaj Shankar, an ex-aide of Rahul Gandhi, tweeted Wednesday: “Polite and simple words from the chief minister really matters. It reassures your belief system during this crisis. Thank you. @CMOMaharashtra.”
The people are especially happy with the FB Live interactions, as they can hear about the gravity of the situation directly from the chief minister.
“It is as if he is talking to us directly,” said Feroza Sinha, a homemaker. “He is talking to us calmly. I believe him when he says that we will not run of food. I stopped panicking about food after listening to him,” said Sinha.
Savita Kulkarni, a die-hard BJP supporter, has become a fan of Thackeray over the last week or so since he started the FB Live interactions.
“He is so compassionate. He has been constantly telling all of us not to cut the wages of our domestic help, drivers etc. He has been requesting organisations to not fire their lower grade staff and to give them at least minimum wages. I feel the CM’s compassion. This is new to us,” she said.
Shift in alliance power dynamics
Thackeray’s hands-on handling of the situation has seen a subtle yet strong shift in the power dynamics of the Maharashtra cabinet. Deputy CM Ajit Pawar, in his previous stints in the government, used to be a dominant voice. However, today Ajit Pawar has stepped back and only a single voice — that of the CM Thackeray — is dominating the crisis. Unlike earlier, there is no cacophony.
Thackeray’s predecessor, Devendra Fadnavis, was known for a belligerent approach with the allies of his BJP-Shiv Sena Government, which led to disgruntlement and rebellion. Thackeray has managed to hold on to the tri-party coalition firmly, without raising anyone’s hackles.
He is pursuing the Shiv Sena’s Hindutva agenda, but without the old aggression. When the MVA government completed 100 days, the CM went to Ayodhya with his family in a highly publicised event. Allies NCP and Congress maintained a silence on the visit.
When the Minister for Minority Affairs, Nawab Malik of the NCP, announced before the media that the government had decided to grant 5 per cent reservation in education to the Muslims, the CM maintained his cool, saying the issue was sub-judice. He refused to comment further, thereby averting a showdown with the Maratha and Dhangar communities, who are also demanding reservation. Neither the NCP nor the Congress spoke on the issue thereafter.
When the issue of the NIA taking over the Elgar Parishad case started to cause a friction among the coalition constituents, Thackeray stepped in and announced that it was only the Elgar Parishad case (pertaining to ‘Urban Naxals’) which was handed over to the NIA. The Bhima-Koregaon riots case was still being investigated by the state investigative agencies, he insisted. And yet again, the NCP and the Congress took a step backwards.
Problem-solving in a crisis
Prior to the lockdown in Maharashtra (which was announced Monday), people from urban areas were rushing to their homes in the villages. However, in the villages, they faced ostracism due to the perception that anyone from the city was a carrier of the coronavirus.
When the CM was told that people were going around announcing in the villages that they will be socially ostracised if they allow their relatives from the cities to stay in their homes, he swung into action.
“All the guardian ministers (Maharashtra appoints one minister in charge of each of the 36 districts; this has been happening under successive governments) were immediately asked to ensure that this social ostracism was dealt with before it went out of hand. The CM is not aggressive, but has conveyed what he wants done to his cabinet,” said a government source.
Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant said the simple and humble demeanour of the CM has established a direct link with the people. “He has taken immediate steps with a no-nonsense approach. The state is most fortunate to have an experienced government with him leading it,” said Sawant.
When images of police using batons to hit people who had ventured from their homes were shown to the CM, he ordered the police not to lose their cool. The CM’s instructions, tweeted by news agency ANI said: “If people are moving out for essentials, be gentle with them and ask them not to move out without reason. I am asking the police that we are not stopping people from living, just changing their lifestyle a bit.”
Thackeray’s moderate approach has also brought in a transition in the Shiv Sena. From a party known for its lumpen elements and vandalism, the party has acquired a sophisticated makeover, according to Pratap Asbe, a political analyst.
“Both Uddhav and Aaditya are urbane and sophisticated. This has gone down to the party grassroots. Also, Uddhav is still the Shiv Sena chief. His behaviour will set the bar for the behaviour of the rank and file of the party,” said Asbe.
Ketkar said the “true pillar of strength” behind the chief minister is Aaditya, who has not been given due credit.
“Raj (Thackeray, Uddhav’s cousin and chief of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena) is still carrying on with the Shiv Sena baggage. Uddhav is non-controversial and cautious in his approach. The people are used to typical leaders who are fiery and aggressive. Uddhav’s calmness is being appreciated by the people,” he said.
Caroline Samson, CEO of Concept Analysis Multimedia sees Uddhav Thackeray more as a family man who is exuding that feeling to the people.
“Today, when we are all locked in our houses with only our family, the CM talks to us gently. He is aware of the perils families go through. He is honest with people. We know he is doing his best,” said Samson.