Mumbai: Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray once wanted to become a doctor. He never pursued that line of career, but, as chief minister, he finds himself playing a key role in the management of the biggest health challenge the world has seen in decades, the Covid-19 pandemic.
Helping him along the way is a deep curiosity for matters of medicine — be it contemporary health issues like Covid-19 or his late father Bal Thackeray’s illness. For Uddhav, say aides, studying medicine is a hobby he pursues with extreme relish.
This is one of the lesser-known facets about Uddhav, whose public image is that of an accidental chief minister and once-reluctant politician who grew to be a shrewd leader as he stepped into the shoes of his father, who founded the Shiv Sena.
In his private life, the Shiv Sena chief, who turned 60 Monday, is a health enthusiast who shuns all fried food, a family man, and an avid reader.
His Instagram page hosts exquisite shots of nature, a testament to his passion for wildlife photography.
Known for his witticisms, he is quick to retreat into a shell in times of stress.
According to people who know the Shiv Sena chief closely, one thing that stands out about him is his vast expanse of medical knowledge.
“He studies contemporary health issues like a hobby, be it Swine Flu, Dengue, Ebola, or now Covid. When Balasaheb was unwell, he knew every little detail about his medical condition and would discuss these with the doctor every day,” said a senior Shiv Sena leader close to Thackeray.
In an interview this month to Saamana, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Uddhav said “medical science has been a topic of curiosity and reading” for him “since childhood”.
“One possibility that would keep cropping in my mind was that I should become a doctor,” he added. “Eventually, it’s good that this didn’t happen,” he added.
Regular gym, no fried food
As a child, Uddhav was particularly interested in homoeopathy. He is learnt to have started delving deeper into the realm of modern medicine after he underwent angioplasty in 2012 and was learning to live with multiple stents.
When he took over as CM on 28 November last year, many critics said he had neither the experience nor the health to manage such a stressful position.
However, Uddhav takes his health very seriously, say party sources. Keeping his fragile heart in mind, he follows a strict meal plan and exercise regimen, they add.
At Matoshree, the Thackeray home in suburban Bandra, there is a separate chef who prepares Uddhav Thackeray’s meals in keeping with his diet specifications, a Shiv Sena MP said.
“He stringently follows his diet. No oil, no butter, no cheese, nothing fried. Uddhavsaheb generally doesn’t fuss about food,” he added.
Uddhav’s wife of 32 years, Rashmi Thackeray, ensures there’s no disruption in his diet, while his personal assistant, Milind Narvekar, makes sure that the Shiv Sena chief has his medication on time even on hectic days, another party functionary said.
Uddhav typically spends about an hour at his home gym, going in at about 8.30 am to hit the treadmill and exerbike, before he begins his day as chief minister, party leaders say. His official meetings usually start only after 11 am, and work often stretches beyond 1 am.
Self-care in times of Covid
Considering his age and medical history, the chief minister is himself in the demographic most vulnerable to Covid-19-related complications, and, party leaders say, he observes proper precautions.
“He keeps saying it is important not just for himself, but also to set an example for others,” a party functionary said.
While he tells Maharashtra’s population to work from home until the Covid-19 threat recedes, Thackeray, too, operates from Matoshree unless stepping out is essential.
The ground floor of the bungalow, which used to be full of visitors before the lockdown, is now a quasi-CMO with a small space for government employees to operate from. It hosts video conferencing equipment, and also has meeting rooms.
Thackeray has been criticised by the opposition, as well as his own allies in hushed tones, for working from home, but it hardly bothers him. In his interview to Saamana, he said he can keep an eye on the entire state from his house through technology.
“In the few meetings that Uddhavsaheb has had outside Matoshree, he has driven his own car to avoid exposure to anyone else and have fewer people in the vehicle,” one of the aforementioned party functionaries said.
Even when Uddhav traveled to Pandharpur on 1 July to perform the traditional Ashadi Ekadashi puja, he and his son, state minister Aaditya, took turns at the steering wheel over the nearly seven-hour journey, party sources said.
An official who works with Uddhav’s team at Mantralaya added, “The CM is simple and polite and it can be seen in his small gestures. For instance, if there is any political discussion after a cabinet meeting and bureaucrats need to be told to leave, he personally gets up and requests them. Then, on international women’s day, he had written letters to all women employees in Mantralaya thanking them for their work.”
No time to pick up the camera, but hobby alive on Instagram
Much before he chose politics as his calling, Uddhav made his mark as a skilful photographer, whose work has been published and also been featured in highly-acclaimed exhibitions.
“He hasn’t picked up a camera in six months now. But he keeps his interest in the subject alive by talking about it, reading about it,” said a party leader close to the CM.
Uddhav has also posted a few of his photos, shot on an iPhone, on his verified Instagram handle, drawing praise from netizens.
He can no longer go on photography expeditions like earlier, but he still tries to find time for his other hobbies — reading and music, aides say.
“He loves reading and re-reading P.L. Deshpande’s work,” the party leader close to Uddhav said, referring to the giant of the Marathi arts world. “He has an iPod with hundreds of old Marathi songs, natya sangeet (songs from Marathi musicals) and old speeches of Balasaheb stored in it,” he added.
Ever since he took over the Shiv Sena’s reins, Thackeray has always been compared with his father, with critics pointing out how unlike the two are. Party leaders and senior journalists who would frequent Matoshree during the days of Bal Thackeray say the edifice has a completely different atmosphere under Uddhav.
“Balasaheb had friends across spectrums — politicians, writers, poets. He was known to catch up with a wide variety of people and was accessible in person to almost everyone. Uddhav isn’t exactly that,” a senior journalist who did not wish to be named said.
Party leaders say Uddhav Thackeray has specific meetings for specific purposes and doesn’t spend too much time in making small talk. Also, he is more accessible to his party members over the phone than in person.
Father and son are also said to be different when it comes to family. Uddhav, aides say, is much more a family man than Balasaheb ever was.
However, there are several aspects where Uddhav reflects his father’s style of functioning. One of them is how he signs his letters.
“Shortly after becoming CM, our staff had taken a bunch of letters to sir for his signature. He sent them all back, asking for a change,” the Mantralaya official quoted above said.
“He wanted two words — “Aapla Namra (yours sincerely)” — added at the end of every letter, above his title and signature,” he added. Just like Balasaheb.