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In Maharashtra’s new normal, CM Thackeray works from home, while ministers skip Mantralaya

Officials say governance largely unaffected under Uddhav Thackeray’s keen eye despite him working from home, but experts say Shiv Sena's political image could take a beating.

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Mumbai: Last Tuesday, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray addressed the inauguration ceremony of the much-delayed Patra Chawl redevelopment project in Mumbai’s western suburb of Goregaon.

He appeared on a large screen set up on the left of the dais, on which several of his colleagues, including Deputy CM Ajit Pawar and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar, sat in person.

A day before that, the CM attended the groundbreaking ceremony of a new administrative building of a hospital in Raigad district. Again, he was not on stage, but on a screen to its left.

Last week, he flagged off India’s first water taxi and inaugurated the Belapur jetty in a similar fashion.

At the helm of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in the state — which comprises the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Congress — Thackeray, who is Maharashtra’s 19th CM, has a style of working that is very different from most of his predecessors. He almost never sits in his sixth-floor office at Mantralaya, the state secretariat. He mostly operates from his official residence ‘Varsha’, and at the most, the state guest house ‘Sahyadri’, which is a kilometre away. He is also seen less on the field and attends most meetings and events via video conferencing.

The Shiv Sena president, who was sworn in as CM on 28 November, 2019, adopted this method of governance mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, what started off as a precautionary measure has now, after two years and three months of leading the government, become the new normal in Maharashtra, with Thackeray’s health also being fragile. The CM underwent a cervical spine surgery in November last year and is known to have multiple stents in his heart.

In an interview to Loksatta editor-in-chief Girish Kuber Friday, CM Thackeray had expressed his intention of working out of Mantralaya more often. “The elephant is gone, only the tail is left,” he said, referring to how he has almost recovered now after his surgery.

Government officials, politicians and experts ThePrint spoke to said that while Thackeray’s method of working so far has been non-traditional, it hasn’t impacted governance and the speed at which files are cleared, and has more political repercussions than administrative.

Some say it helps that there is a very visible deputy CM, Ajit Pawar, present in Mantralaya most of the time. Others say the CM’s physical absence fuels the narrative that NCP president Sharad Pawar is the one actually calling the shots.

Some also say that while Thackeray’s style of working may be efficient, it robs government officials and civil servants of valuable face time with the CM, and that it is important for the head of a state to lead from the front.

According to others, most ministers in the MVA government have followed suit — they no longer sit in their Mantralaya offices and either work out of their official bungalows in Mumbai, or from their constituencies.

Shiv Sena leaders battle any criticism of Thackeray’s way of work by touting surveys that have ranked the party president among the country’s most popular and best performing CMs.

“Uddhav saheb has always with humility accepted that he did not have the administrative experience when he became CM. He had never held this desire to become CM, but the turn of events was such that posterity needed him to take charge. He tried to learn from his cabinet colleagues, but at the same time, during the pandemic, he had to keep public programmes and physical interaction with people in check. Later, due to his health he was medically advised to stay home,” Shiv Sena MLA Bhaskar Jadhav told ThePrint.

“But all of this never affected governance and the testimony for that is he was named among the five best CMs in the country. The Opposition couldn’t digest this and so they are criticising his working style,” he added.

Also Read: How Raj Thackeray and his MNS are planning to resurrect themselves in ‘do-or-die’ BMC polls

Political disadvantages

In July 2020, Uddhav Thackeray had during an interview to Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamana defended his style, saying that technology has evolved such that he doesn’t need to travel, and work from home helps him keep an eye on the entire state.

Speaking to ThePrint, senior journalist and political analyst Abhay Deshpande said Thackeray is indeed known to keep a watchful eye on the administration even from home by regularly interacting with everyone who really matters in the state government.

For instance, Deshpande said, since the pandemic began, Thackeray is said to have been in touch with the state Covid task force every single day. However, the CM’s working style brings political disadvantages for the Shiv Sena, he added.

“The opposition to this government is so strong that you feel the CM’s physical absence. On one side there’s someone (Thackeray) who doesn’t step out of the house, and on the other side there is the opposition leader (Devendra Fadnavis) who is never home,” he said, adding that it fuels the opposition’s narrative that it is NCP chief Sharad Pawar who is actually running the show, and not CM Thackeray.

“The NCP has almost become the face of the government because their leaders are seen on the ground everywhere. Even at the Patra Chawl programme the other day, the CM attended via video conferencing while Pawar was present in person. For the public eye, this makes the opposition’s narrative about Pawar holding the reins to the government stronger,” Deshpande said.

A senior Congress leader, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint that most ministers in the MVA government also have stopped sitting in their Mantralaya offices and either work out of their official bungalows in Mumbai or from their constituencies.

“A general being present and leading from the front is important. If the CM is not there, then ministers only come for the one day of the week when there is a cabinet meeting. All of them are guardian ministers of some district or other, and are behaving like the CMs of their own respective districts,” he added.

Shiv Sena’s Bhaskar Jadhav however claimed: “While Uddhavsaheb’s working style hasn’t impacted the administration, one cannot deny that his limited interaction with public, with party workers does bring some disadvantage to the party organisation.”

“But, Shiv Sainiks are acutely aware of his circumstances and once he does start field visits, there will be so much political enthusiasm by the Shiv Sena that the opposition BJP will think it was better when the CM was staying at home,” he added.

‘Presence of deputy CM Pawar helps’

A senior IAS officer posted in Mantralaya said that having face time with the CM is vital: “Some may call this an efficient way of working because you are quickly moving from one file to another without any distractions, but having some face-to-face time with the CM is important.”

However, she added that governance has not suffered because there is a very capable and experienced deputy CM who shares excellent relations with Thackeray.

“The deputy CM is present in Mantralaya every day from 8 am to 5 pm as much as possible, except for Fridays. He holds the finance portfolio so all files inevitably pass his eye. He is there in person for all cabinet briefings,” she further said.

According to officials, since Pawar is present in Mantralaya, issues where in-person intervention helps are usually sorted out by him. For example, last week, nearly 1.7 million class 3 and 4 government employees of Mantralaya had called a strike, demanding that the retirement age be made 60 from 58 years, and an old pension scheme be revived. The protesting workers decided to call off their strike after a meeting with the deputy CM.

An NCP MLA, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint that in physical meetings, officials can pick up on body language.

“A glance here, a frown there gives you an idea of what may be going on in the CM’s mind. Government officials are also more motivated to make presentations to the CM in person,” he said.

‘Video conferencing now routine’

State public works minister and Congress leader Ashok Chavan told ThePrint: “Everybody has got their own way of functioning. Decision-making and effectiveness of the government has not been affected.”

“The CM has rightly taken the necessary precaution considering the pandemic and his own health. Anyway, technology has advanced now and video conferencing has become a routine way of working. In fact, one perhaps gets more work done in a day that way. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it,” the former chief minister added.

A second civil servant, who did not wish to be named, said the CM’s physical presence or lack of it makes little difference in the day-to-day functioning of the state administration.

“I have been seeing this for the last three decades. It is not that a CM seen in public offices and on the field gets more or better work done because then a lot of time is spent in planning tours, physical meetings and traveling. This CM isn’t spending time on these fringe things,” he added.

‘Will start attending Mantralaya’

The civil servant, who has shifted most of his work to video conferencing too, added that CM Thackeray’s style is to appear when required, and then vanish.

For instance, Thackeray did field visits to Raigad after the district was ravaged by Cyclone Nisarga in 2020, Ratnagiri after the floods there last year, and a few visits to the Vidarbha region, among others. Thackeray was traveling more actively towards the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021, when the first wave of the pandemic was ebbing and the second wave had not set in.

His physical appearances have been limited since his surgery last year. The CM did not attend a single day of the five-day winter session of the Maharashtra assembly held in Mumbai two months ago in December. He has been seen at events such as Lata Mangeshkar’s funeral in Mumbai, and a rare press briefing he addressed jointly with Telangana CM K Chandrashekhar Rao earlier this month.

His latest public appearance was on Friday, at Marathi newspaper Loksatta’s foundation day, when he said he intends to come to Mantralaya more often.

“Coming without making a big deal out of it is good. It is better than saying ‘Me punha yein’ (I will come again) and not coming at all,” Thackeray had said in a veiled taunt at former CM Fadnavis’ ‘Me punha yein’ campaign ahead of the 2019 state polls.

“Now, I am pretty much back on track…nothing is impossible when you have the grit and determination. Now the elephant has passed, the tail is left. That too will pass soon. Once that happens, I will start coming to Mantralaya,” he added.

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: In battleground UP, Aaditya Thackeray lays out 2024 agenda & road map for Shiv Sena expansion

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