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Populist schemes, fiscal strain, tussles with Centre & Covid — Thackeray govt’s year in power

While the govt rolled out a few populist measures such as the farm loan waiver, it was unable to announce any major new development projects while grappling with Covid-19 crisis.

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Mumbai: The first year of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra has largely been a mixed bag. The coalition government assumed power on 28 November 2019.

There have been many murmurs of discontent, a few populist measures, a strain on finances, optics of new investments, a constant tussle with the Centre, allegations of police excesses and a pandemic to raise the stakes for the first time allies Shiv Sena, National Congress Party and Congress. 

The year began with the three parties, with different ideologies, joining hands only to stumble upon fault lines on certain pressing ideological issues. Even as the parties internally sorted these, the year was dotted with reports of lack of coordination between the three. 

While the government rolled out a few populist measures such as the farm loan waiver, which the Shiv Sena had promised in its manifesto, it was unable to announce any major new development projects or schemes while grappling with Covid-19 crisis that dominated its first year in power.

The situation was further exacerbated for the ruling alliance as Cyclone Nisarga in Raigad and untimely rain in different parts of the state caused damage, making relief measures imminent and further straining the state’s coffers. The strain led to the direct conflict with the Centre, with the state blaming the Union government for not clearing dues worth Rs 38,000 crore every time a question of funds arose. 

However, the Thackeray-led government did focus on foreign investments, the farm sector, tourism and real estate to a certain extent, with a view to boost the economy when Maharashtra comes out of the pandemic. 

Addressing a press conference Wednesday, former CM Devendra Fadnavis criticised the MVA for failing to handle the Covid-19 crisis. “In the past one year, the state government has only done one thing, which is to stay projects,” Fadnavis said. “The government has also failed in handling the Covid crisis and so is blaming the Centre…Instead of talking about the government’s performance in the past year, the CM is giving threats in language that is completely unfit for his post.” 

Fadnavis was referring to Thackeray’s interview to Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Saamana, earlier this week, when the CM said the opposition should not compel him to act. “Do remember, you also have family and children,” Thackeray had said.  

Neelam Gorhe, Shiv Sena spokesperson and deputy chairman in the state legislative council, defended the government.  

“All the decisions that the Shiv Sena has taken are for sustainable development, including the decision about moving the Metro car shed from Aarey Colony,” Gorhe told ThePrint. “The BJP is simply trying to mislead people and is ignoring major issues such as GST dues pending to be released by the Centre to the state.”

“Also, the former CM has in the past used terminology such as ‘Saam daam danda bhed,’ and the BJP has repeatedly backstabbed its friend,” she added. “Such a party has no right to comment on the chief minister’s language.”  


Also read: After uneasy year with Sena-NCP, Congress plays down rows, says Maharashtra govt won’t fall


Governance with fault lines 

The first hundred days of the MVA government were marked with questions about the stability of the delicate coalition as ideological differences over issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act and the Elgar Parishad probe came to the fore. 

Shiv Sena initially favoured the legislation, while Congress and NCP ministers wanted the state government to oppose the bill. The state assembly, however, did not pass any resolution against the implementation of the Act unlike many other non-BJP ruled states.

NCP President Sharad Pawar had also publicly expressed his displeasure at Thackeray’s decision to hand over the Elgaar Parishad probe to the National Investigation Agency. 

All three parties played down the differences and other issues of coordination that cropped up later in the year, with the intent of seeing the government through its term to keep the BJP out. 

MVA constituent parties as well as experts, however, think that the optics of this dynamic could have been managed better. 

An expert who has worked in collaboration with the MVA government requesting anonymity said that optics matter. “The CM not being seen often and coming across as inaccessible is fine in a corporate structure, but not in a democratic government, especially when you are confronted with an opposition that is seen, heard and great at managing optics,” the expert said. “Reports about the lack of coordination between allies too don’t inspire confidence among voters.” 

Arrests of social media dissenters, the verbal war with actor Kangana Ranaut and the swift demolition of her office bungalow, and the pile up of cases against Republic TV and its editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami at a time when the government is fighting a pandemic too gave the opposition arsenal to attack the MVA with. While none of the MVA constituents openly expressed dissent, a few Congress members ThePrint spoke to were uncomfortable with the events. 

Focus on agriculture, populist measures & rural vote bank 

Despite most of the year and the government’s plans having been washed out by the pandemic, the MVA government gave special attention to agriculture, with the rural vote-bank being important to the Congress as well as the NCP, and one where the Shiv Sena has been working towards building a base. 

A senior Congress minister who did not wish to be named said that small issues between the parties have been resolved from time to time. “The Congress is also benefiting from this government with several pro-farmer decisions,” the minister said. “The state government purchased record quantities of cotton from farmers at the minimum support price this year, then we decided to extend aid to paddy farmers. A majority of these farmers are from the Vidarbha region, so our party surely stands to benefit.” 

The scheme for paddy farmers was cleared earlier this week and involves disbursing Rs 700 per quintal to farmers with a total cost of Rs 1,400 crore. Paddy is an important crop cultivated in districts of the Nagpur division in Vidarbha, where the Congress has historically had a significant base but had started losing ground to the BJP since 2014. 

Similarly, ministers across parties also talk up the promised farm loan waiver of up to Rs 2 lakh, under which the MVA government has disbursed Rs 19,643 crore to 30.77 lakh accounts. 

Another pet initiative of the chief minister is ‘Vikel te pikel,’ (grow what sells), which involves connecting farmers to 1,370 market-based value chains and enabling them to grow crops based on the end demand of consumers. 

The MVA government also counts the ‘Shiv Bhojan’ scheme, a Shiv Sena programme that the CM institutionalised as a scheme after coming to power, as one of its major successes. 

The scheme, dubbed as an extension of the party’s ‘Shiv Vada Pao Yojana,’ involves offering a full meal at Rs 5 at 907 centres across the state. Similarly, a policy decision to shift a contentious Metro car shed out of the ecologically sensitive Aarey Colony, hailed as a big win for the Shiv Sena and Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray, is also talked up as a move pushed by all three MVA constituents. 

Sayli Udas Mankikar, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, told ThePrint, “One of this government’s highlights was how speedily it implemented its promised farm loan waiver. They got a few such populist schemes out before Covid hit. There can’t be a fair assessment of the first year as the government got pushed into a pandemic.”

“But the government is networking with embassies, signing agreements,” she said. “That’s the right way to go because the only way they can really succeed in the following year is by getting investments.” 

According to data with the state government, the state industries department has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) worth over Rs 50,000 crore for industrial investments. 

Abhay Pethe, senior resident fellow at the Mumbai University, said though the CM was criticised for it, his approach to open up the economy cautiously after the lockdown was a prudent one. 

“These are personality traits. Uddhav Thackeray is conservative, risk averse and was acting on his instinct as well as the ground information that he was getting,” he said. “I think it was a prudent approach. Moves to spur the economy such as the cut in stamp duty were also right as real estate is a lead sector in employment generation. More such specific packages need to be designed.” 


Also read: Pratap Sarnaik — crorepati Shiv Sena MLA raided by ED was once an autorickshaw driver 


Covid-19 and financial woes 

Maharashtra has been the state worst affected by the Covid-19 crisis, having recorded 18,08,550 Covid positive cases and 46,898 deaths as of Saturday. 

When the pandemic hit, the MVA government faced a legacy issue of woefully inadequate health infrastructure with successive governments having ignored the public health sector. 

The first three months were marked with a scramble for hospital beds, especially in Mumbai, but the Thackeray government soon ramped up infrastructure by creating dedicated Covid facilities, jumbo hospitals and taking bold measures such as reserving 80 per cent beds in private hospitals for the state government’s use. 

The state was also credited for being one of the early players in democratising Covid-19 testing, and capping the cost of Covid tests, masks and other medical equipment. 

Covid, the lockdown and CM Thackeray’s policy of cautiously opening up, however, have led the state government to project a revenue shortfall of over one lakh crore in 2020-21, an official from the state finance department told ThePrint. 

The state government, which has now implemented a 50 per cent cut in all non-urgent development expenditure, had earlier pegged revenue receipts at Rs 2.6 lakh for the fiscal. 

Mankikar of the Observer Research Foundation said that the CM’s decision to effectively use the civil service helped him ease into his role in troubled times. 

“Uddhav Thackeray did not have the administrative skills to really come into this gigantic role that he was given,” Mankikar said. “One intelligent thing that he did was that he quickly understood this gap, and used administrative intelligence, the bureaucracy, which has helped him stay afloat, though he faced much political criticism for it. The only people who could have planned and saved a situation like Covid were bureaucrats.” 

Speaking to ThePrint last week, Dr. Shivkumar Utture, president of the Maharashtra Medical Council, however said the state government has dropped the ball on contact tracing and aggressive testing, which needs to be ramped up again to tackle a second wave. 

The above-mentioned expert who frequently works with the state government, however, said the state government has headroom to borrow despite a strain on finances. 

“One should see the debt servicing in comparison with the revenue you are raising,” he said. “The red flag is when debt crosses 21 per cent of revenue receipts. We are at 15-16 per cent and we have headroom to borrow. It is true that the Centre should clearly give more as devolution, but it is not right for the government to blame the Centre for every move that requires funds.” 


Also read: How NCP’s Ajit Pawar has remained politically relevant year after ‘midnight coup’


 

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4 COMMENTS

  1. What is MSP for? Should this not be driven by food security for nation. MSP for commercial interests / crops is not in best interests of nations, is it?

  2. Uddhav Thakare CM of Maharashtra is successful in handling a MVA government.with the limitations of Covid-19 out break ,Economy,heavy rains,farming problems,the economy was at the lowest,even central government didn’t help him fully; he successfully laid his plans further.Completed one year with all odds.The governor also didn’t cooperate him in certain circumstances. When we go through all ,undoubtedly with limited resources he is successful.

  3. Other achievements are: Using state machinery to settle personal vendetta against individuals (crack downs on Republic TV & Kangana Ranaut) & public statements using language unbecoming of leader/s & finally multiple examples of selective curbs on freedom of expression.

Comments are closed.

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