Mumbai: Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s son Aaditya Thackeray, all of 30, has emerged as his father’s shadow in the state. He is the state cabinet minister for environment, climate change, tourism and protocol, but he has become a fixture at government meetings that have nothing to do with his mandate.
Be it taking stock on Covid-19, or Cyclone Nisarga, which made landfall on Maharashtra’s Konkan coast last month, or matters regarding education or sports — the third-generation Shiv Sena dynast has been everywhere. He has the state’s top civil servants on speed dial, and regularly “reviews” the Covid situation in districts overseen by his senior cabinet colleagues, sources said.
Long story short, the sources added, he is the most powerful cabinet minister in the state.
While supporters defend his presence at meetings that are beyond his prescribed role, saying he is a young politician learning the ropes, everyone in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) — a coalition of the Shiv Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress — doesn’t share the enthusiasm.
Speaking to ThePrint, sources in the NCP and the Congress expressed reservations about his role in the government, suggesting it amounted to interference. Even within the Shiv Sena, a party set up by Aaditya’s grandfather Bal Thackeray, his growing role is seen as the recipe for an imminent power struggle in the party.
In news since student days
Aaditya Thackeray was born on 13 June 1990 in Mumbai. He is the youngest member of the Maharashtra cabinet, having entered his 30s just last month.
While his role in the government is new, he is a veteran of the headlines who first courted them during his days as a student of history at Mumbai University. In 2010, he started a campaign against the Rohinton Mistry novel Such a Long Journey, which allegedly contained unfavourable references to his grandfather. His book-burning protests culminated in the university dropping the book from its syllabus.
In the years since, he has cultivated a different image with his campaign for a 24*7 nightlife in Mumbai,and Goa-like beach shacks along the state’s stunning Konkan coast. His crusade against a proposed Metro shed at Aarey Colony in Mumbai, a project that had been criticised as inimical to the environment, has earned him many fans too.
On Twitter, he has 2.3 million followers, far ahead of the 7.4 lakh that follow his chief minister father’s account.
Aaditya, sources said, wields a strong influence over his father and is the driving force behind many of the chief minister’s decisions.
Although he is the most junior member in the cabinet, he attends all meetings called by the chief minister, irrespective of the department concerned. As the state’s Minister for Environment, Climate Change, Tourism and Protocol, he is networked across the political divide — a fact that is seen as an advantage for his father, the sources said.
The chief minister has come to rely more on the feedback he receives from his son about the meetings than from the bureaucracy, said a source in the government.
In the months since April, as Covid cases spiralled in Maharashtra, Aaditya has been more active in his interactions with officials across the state than the chief minister, sources added.
Civil servants like Ajoy Mehta, the former chief secretary turned adviser to the chief minister, Iqbal Singh Chahal, the incumbent commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and Maharashtra Chief Secretary Sanjay Kumar, are all in constant touch with him.
“Since the beginning of the lockdown, he has been in regular touch with bureaucrats in the state. He is the chief minister’s son, so it is presumed that when he calls, it is on behalf of the chief minister,” said a senior civil servant.
On others’ turf?
Since the Covid crisis began, Thackeray has been holding “review” meetings with civil servants and senior ministers on various issues.
On Thursday, he held one such meeting with Varsha Gaikwad, Minister for School Education, on online classes, school fees and other related matters.
On 2 June, he held a detailed meeting about Nisarga with Chahal. Through letters and calls to Union ministers S. Jaishankar and Hardeep Singh Puri in June, he has been an active campaigner to bring back Maharashtra residents stranded abroad as part of the Vande Bharat mission.
On 3 June, after Nisarga caused extensive damage at Raigad, Aaditya spoke to district collector Nidhi Chaudhary to assure her that five teams of the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) were on their way to help out. On 5 June, he visited Alibaug with his father to review the damage caused by the cyclone.
On 17 June, he participated in a virtual conference with the Retail Association of India for their role in the state government’s Mission Begin Again, the first step towards exiting the lockdown. On 18 June, he held a meeting with BMC corporators to review the Covid-19 crisis and monsoon preparedness.
On 22 June, he dedicated a modular Intensive Care Unit — the first in India — at the National Sports Club of India for public use. On the same day, the Thackeray scion held a meeting with Higher and Technical Education Minister Uday Samant regarding the postponement of the common entrance test for engineering and pharma admissions.
He is the minister in-charge of suburban Mumbai, but is known to routinely look into districts handled by senior ministers with “review meetings”.
On 26 June, he was present at a review meeting with the civic commissioners of Thane, Navi Mumbai, Mira-Bhayander, Bhiwandi and Ulhasnagar — Mumbai satellites that witnessed a Covid surge last month.
The next day, he attended a meeting Uddhav held with Union Joint Secretary (Health) Lav Agarwal and his team during their visit to Mumbai.
On 30 June, during a visit to Pandharpur to attend the traditional Ekadashi Pooja with his parents, Aaditya attended a meeting to take stock of the Covid crisis in the district. This meeting had been called by the chief minister. NCP leader Datta Bharne is the minister in charge of Solapur.
Earlier this month, on 4 July, Aaditya visited the Thane Municipal Corporation, again to take stock of the Covid response. He was accompanied by Eknath Shinde, senior minister in-charge of Thane district, who, sources said, is “uncomfortable” with the review meetings.
On 2 July, he held a video conference with the Indian Football Association to assess the preparedness for the LOC FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup India 2021, which will be held in Navi Mumbai, among other cities. This conference was also attended by Maharashtra Sports Minister Sunil Kedar of the Congress.
“Aaditya Thackeray is the president of the Mumbai District Football Association, which is an organisation like any other. The sports minister was completely eclipsed at this meeting,” said a source.
Since 30 December 2019, when he took over as a cabinet minister, Aaditya has also either initiated or played a major role in several decisions taken. These include the ban on plastic across Maharashtra and keeping malls open through the night.
A dream plan close to his heart is opening roof-top restaurants in Mumbai, which is likely to be given permission once the lockdown ends.
‘An easy path’
In the initial months after the formation of the government, Aaditya Thackeray’s presence at meetings was looked at as the enthusiasm of a newbie. But the sentiment has shifted since.
“No other minister attends meetings of other departments or holds meetings with other departments. He is holding meetings across the board. Why? Are the rest of us incapable?” said a senior minister of the Congress.
“He is young and enthusiastic and is helping his father,” said an NCP minister, but added, “It will concern us if he is on the throne. The Thackerays will stay in line as long as Pawar saheb (NCP chief Sharad Pawar) is advising them.”
Within the Shiv Sena, his rise is seen as an invitation to trouble. “His elevation is a message to Eknath Shinde (Minister for Urban Development) that Aaditya Thackeray is the second-in-command in the Shiv Sena. There will be a power tussle within the Shiv Sena. Eknath Shinde cannot be pushed aside,” said a senior Shiv Sena leader.
Even some of the civil servants talk of an unease in their interactions with Aaditya, saying it is difficult to brief an “administrative greenhorn” even if he is a minister. “He is the chief minister’s son, that’s a fact we cannot forget. Also, I do not want to be transferred to the back of beyond,” said a civil servant.
However, Congress spokesman Sachin Sawant said Aaditya’s presence at the meetings is non-interfering. “It may be to learn about the departments. He does not interfere in the decision-making. It is not within the purview of the Congress to comment on whether he is being groomed for a bigger role,” he added. “But if it interferes with governance then it is a matter of concern, which is not the case here.”
Parimal Maya Sudhakar, a political analyst at the Pune-based MIT School of Governance, said Aaditya’s role is a hint he is being groomed to take over the reins from his father.
“Aaditya is second-in-command in the Shiv Sena and the government. He is being groomed for the role of the chief minister. Uddhav is a mere stopgap arrangement,” he said.
“The path in politics has not been difficult for him. He did not have to try hard for anything,” he added.