Mumbai: As it struggles to control the Covid-19 pandemic, Maharashtra finds itself in the thick of another battle. Tensions are high between Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari and the Uddhav Thackeray government, and this has put the state’s Covid-19 situation at the mercy of two distinct power centres.
With Maharashtra recording by far the highest number of coronavirus cases among states, Koshyari is said to be displeased with the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government’s handling of the crisis. As a result, he has mounted an independent response against the pandemic.
Apart from the reviews they hold with the state government, civil servants have been giving inputs on the Covid-19 situation to Koshyari as well. He has also been repeatedly approached by leaders in the opposition BJP with complaints about the Uddhav Thackeray government’s “failure” to deal with Covid-19, triggering speculation about a conspiracy to unseat the MVA government.
While the BJP has denied the allegations, the MVA has taken a dim view of the governor’s “interference” in the Covid-19 response, with sources in the coalition saying the frost in their relationship has deepened to the point that it is barely cordial. This, even as the Shiv Sena publicly claims there’s no conflict between the chief minister and the governor.
The governor’s office, meanwhile, has refused to comment on the issue.
All these allegations and counter-allegations, amid fresh talk of cracks in the MVA, have lent the Maharashtra situation an image of uncertainty — an image it can ill afford as it tries to rein in the widening spread of Covid-19.
‘No political discussion’
There was much speculation Monday as Koshyari invited Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, an MVA constituent, for a meeting at Raj Bhavan. The meeting came after Thackeray allegedly spurned at least two invites from the Raj Bhavan last week, sending his PA to one of the meetings instead.
After meeting Koshyari, Pawar held a meeting with Thackeray at Matoshree, his residence-cum-office in suburban Bandra, around 6 pm. Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut was also present at the meeting.
Pawar’s party colleague and former union minister Praful Patel, who accompanied him to the meeting with Koshyari, said there was no discussion on political issues, but analysts said the heightened political activity at Raj Bhavan in recent days is significant.
While Koshyari has tried to oversee the Covid-19 situation since the beginning of the pandemic, through virtual interactions with civil servants, political activity at Raj Bhavan is said to have strengthened since 23 May, when Raut, who has been critical of the governor leading a parallel Covid watch, met him.
Later, the Raj Bhavan tweeted a photo of Raut bending before Koshyari with folded hands as the latter denied reports of a conflict between the two sides. On the same day, Pawar and Thackeray held a meeting.
At 6 pm the same day, BJP leader Kirit Somaiya, one of the most vocal critics of the state government’s Covid-19 response, met the governor. At the meeting, Somaiya, who has been highlighting alleged gaps in the functioning of government and BMC-run hospitals (BMC is led by the Shiv Sena) in Mumbai, is said to have apprised Koshyari of the government’s failings.
Later that evening at 8 pm, Thackeray’s close aide and PA Milind Narvekar met the governor at Raj Bhavan. Late Monday afternoon, former chief minister and BJP Rajya Sabha MP Narayan Rane met the governor too. Rane, who quit the Shiv Sena in 2005 following differences with Thackeray, is said to have informed the governor about the dismal condition of state-run hospitals in Maharashtra.
“The situation is going out of control. Uddhav Thackeray is unable to control the worsening situation,” he told the media later.
Since the lockdown was imposed on 25 March, former CM Devendra Fadnavis, the incumbent leader of the opposition in the assembly, has met the governor on three occasions, the latest being on 19 May.
It’s not just political activity, the governor has also invoked his role as chancellor of state-run universities to raise objection to a state government decision on higher-education institutes.
On 19 May, Higher and Technical Education Minister Uday Samant issued a letter to the University Grants Commission (UGC) seeking cancellation of final-year examinations in state-run universities amid the lockdown. The governor immediately fired a letter to Thackeray, asking him to issue “suitable instructions” to the minister for his “unwarranted interference”. Not conducting exams will constitute a breach of UGC rules, MVA sources quoted the letter as having said.
To add to the tensions, the governor now wants his office to be delinked from that of the government administration department (GAD) located at Mantralaya, the state secretariat. This department, which decides on routine administrative matters of the Raj Bhavan such as appointments and transfers, is headed by Thackeray.
The governor’s office has written to Thackeray seeking independent status for Raj Bhavan on the lines of the judiciary and the Vidhan Bhavan secretariat.
Explaining the request, a Raj Bhavan official said it was a bid to address certain administrative hiccups.
“Currently, many of the service-related issues, like salary, promotions etc, of the lower-level staff of Raj Bhavan gets stuck with the GAD. There are often long delays,” the official added.
“There is also a disparity in salaries of the lower-level staff at Mantralaya and Raj Bhavan. To avoid delays and ensure speedy decisions on service-related issues, this letter was sent to delink the administration of Raj Bhavan from GAD,” the official said.
A letter in this regard was sent to the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) in January, the official said, adding that “no communication has been received yet”.
Tug of war
The government, meanwhile, has dug in its heels against what it sees as the governor’s interference.
On 20 May, the governor summoned Chief Minister Thackeray and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar along with chief secretary Ajoy Mehta and other senior civil servants to Raj Bhavan for a meeting. Neither Thackeray nor Ajit Pawar attended the meeting, even though they had conveyed to Raj Bhavan that they would participate through video conferencing, sources in the CMO said.
Thackeray is also yet to respond to the governor’s letter on GDA, sources in the MVA said, confirming the Raj Bhavan official’s claim.
Sources in the MVA said BJP leaders’ frequent meetings with the governor made it clear that the party is “building a case for the dismissal of the Thackeray government”.
“The situation in Gujarat is worse than Maharashtra. Yet, that government is safe with no interference from the governor,” a senior cabinet minister said.
However, the BJP has denied the allegations. In a Facebook Live address Tuesday, Fadnavis said “the BJP is not interested in playing politics and bringing down the government”.
“However, the BJP will step up the pressure on the government to bring in corrective measures to contain the spread of coronavirus. The government has failed in this direction,” he added.
Experts are split about the MVA’s allegations of a BJP bid to destabilise the government.
Political analyst Pratap Asbe said the MVA government is facing a three-pronged attack. “The Centre, the BJP in Maharashtra and the governor are stifling the Maharashtra government from all sides. They are all together trying to prove that Maharashtra is a failed state,” said Asbe.
“The BJP, led by Fadnavis, is trying to destabilise the Maharashtra government, get it dismissed and bring in President’s rule by making the Centre declare a medical emergency in Maharashtra,” he added.
Analyst Vishwambhar Chowdhari, however, said the BJP will not take the risk of bringing down the government “even if they may get the chance”.
“There is unrest among the MVA constituent parties and the Congress seems very restless in the MVA. Probably the Congress feels that it is becoming inconvenient to remain in the government,” he added.
Asbe also said the governor is creating confusion among the civil servants through his review meetings. “The governor is undermining the office of the chief minister and an elected government. Who should the bureaucracy report to? The governor or the chief minister? This confusion has already started,” he added.
Koshyari has had a frosty relationship with the Uddhav Thackeray government since it was sworn in last November. In April, for example, Koshyari cited legal and technical complications and refused to nominate Thackeray to the Maharashtra Legislative Council, putting the latter’s leadership in peril.
Any minister in India, if sworn in without being a member of the legislature, has six months to seek election at the respective level (central or state). If they fail to get elected, they can’t hold their positions any longer. The deadline was 26 May for Thackeray.
Finally, Thackeray dialled Prime Minister Narendra Modi and sought his intervention. The Election Commission subsequently announced polls to the legislative council and Thackeray was elected.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.