Mumbai: There have been several instances over the past few months that have suggested a lack of coordination within the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra, and discomfort in the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) over Chief Minister and Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership style.
However, for now, the three parties have decided to speak in the same voice on the rising speculation about differences in the coalition — the issues are minor, they say, and the government will complete its full term.
NCP president Sharad Pawar’s three-part interview in Saamana, the first such interview of a non-Shiv Sena leader to be published in the party’s mouthpiece, was a step in the same direction.
Pawar’s interview came after a series of meetings last week between Shiv Sena and NCP ministers that were meant to iron out alleged creases in their relationship.
In the first part of the interview, Pawar insisted that there is no lack of coordination between the three MVA partners — the Congress, the NCP and the Shiv Sena — and that such reports are just attempts by newspapers to fill space.
However, in the third part, Pawar conceded that some ministers are upset as Chief Minister Thackeray is seen to have a unilateral style of functioning that doesn’t allow for discussions.
It is somewhere in between these two statements of Pawar that the dynamic of the MVA allies actually lies.
Despite their differences over the seven months the MVA has been in office, the three parties — unnatural allies with a history of bad blood — express confidence that their government will last its full term because the primary reason they came together stays strong.
“The reason why we formed this government was to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) out of power,” said a senior Congress leader who did not wish to be named. “That reason still remains and all parties are willing to overlook minor issues in functioning for this singular purpose.”
Friction between allies
Between 2 July and 7 July, there were at least four meetings between senior NCP leaders and Chief Minister Thackeray, along with other senior Shiv Sena ministers.
In the first two, Deputy CM Ajit Pawar and Pawar Senior met Thackeray individually to discuss the lockdown in Maharashtra. NCP sources said the party leaders were unhappy about Thackeray’s “unilateral decision” to extend the lockdown in Maharashtra until 31 July and slow down the granting of relaxations to galvanise the economy.
In the interview to Saamana, however, Pawar said he had only shared his opinion with Thackeray following his discussions with a lot of groups, from workers’ unions to industries, during the lockdown. “This isn’t called having differences in opinion,” he said.
The subsequent two meetings, sources said, were meant to sort out issues where the Shiv Sena felt snubbed by the NCP, for example, the Mumbai Police decision to internally transfer 10 deputy commissioners of police (DCPs). While state Home Minister Anil Deshmukh of the NCP is said to have been kept in the loop, Thackeray was allegedly caught unawares by the decision.
Within 72 hours, Thackeray stayed the transfers and later cleared them with three changes, asserting his authority.
The other bone of contention was the NCP’s decision to induct five Shiv Sena councillors from Parner in the Ahmednagar district earlier this month. Following a meeting between Thackeray and Ajit Pawar, the councillors were brought back to the Shiv Sena fold last week.
Speaking to ThePrint, Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut shrugged it off as a “minor local issue”.
“The NCP legislator from the region was originally our taluka pramukh there before the elections. These five councillors were his supporters. But the councillors have come back to Shiv Sena now,” he said.
However, a senior Shiv Sena functionary said Thackeray had taken the episode very seriously and wanted to send a strong message that this could not happen again.
Even as the Shiv Sena leader acknowledged there were issues between the three parties, he said “they aren’t as dire as the opposition is making them out to be”.
“Regarding the DCP transfers, it is not acceptable that Uddhavsaheb’s approval was not sought. All these meetings were because we are willing to work through these issues. And above all, we still want to keep the BJP out.”
Thackeray’s decision-making style a major sticking point
Congress ministers have complained about not getting their due in this government, besides taking exception to what they see as Thackeray’s over-reliance on civil servants.
Also, ever since he took over as CM, Thackeray has mostly been operating from his suburban Mumbai residence, Matoshree, and there have been allegations that he only confers with a team comprising family and staff members who serve as his confidants — son Aaditya, wife Rashmi Thackeray and, at times, personal assistant and party secretary Milind Narvekar, and his go-to Sena functionary Anil Parab.
Thackeray’s alleged reluctance to hold discussions with allies on important matters has put off many people, with experts saying his style of functioning will be responsible if the MVA fails.
A senior Congress functionary said, “There is inexperience in the leadership in running the government. That’s why we have so many stumbling blocks.”
Political commentator Prakash Bal added, “Uddhav Thackeray is running the government like he runs the Shiv Sena. He doesn’t consult anyone except Aaditya Thackeray and Rashmi Thackeray.
“If this government falls, it will be because of this style of functioning as CM Thackeray and, if it is saved, it will be because Sharad Pawar is running from pillar to post to make amends. Acts such as his interview to Saamana are face-saving exercises.”
In his interview to Saamana, Pawar admitted that communication within the MVA was an issue, and appeared to gently prod Thackeray to change his unilateral style of functioning. While this will not harm the MVA government, he said, it needs to change.
“If two parties have some opinions, it is important to pay heed to them, and so we keep insisting that there should be a dialogue. There will be no such discussion (by Congress leaders) if this dialogue is there…We don’t see any problem in Thackeray’s style of functioning, but there is no dialogue.”
Leaders blame Covid crisis for ‘miscommunication’
Of the seven months that the MVA government has been in office, four have been spent battling the Covid crisis, of which 2.5 months were marked by a complete lockdown.
Leaders from the three parties blame the pandemic for making face-to-face meetings difficult, and say much of their communication issues could be blamed on this phase.
NCP’s Dilip Walse-Patil, who handles the excise and labour portfolios in the Thackeray cabinet, said, “I have personally never experienced any lack of coordination with others in the government. If there is any strain on administration, it is only because of the current situation.”
He added, “There is less staff present in Mantralaya, there is less staff on the field for the state government’s regular activities. Important meetings are not face-to-face. That’s why there may be some misunderstandings, but otherwise things are fine.”
As of now, government offices are functioning with just 15 per cent of their staff. Some ministers who live in Mumbai have started going to their Mantralaya offices and also physically attend cabinet meetings. Most others join on video conferencing.
Shiv Sena’s Raut said, “Since nearly six months, the political administration has had its hands full dealing with Covid. Coordination between the different stakeholders of the government can be efficiently seen in a normal situation.”
“This is not a normal situation,” he added.