Politics | In Maharashtra’s COVID-19 response, CM Uddhav Thackeray disproves his critics


Sujata Anandan

When Former Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah tweets that he finds Maharashtra Chief Minister and Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray a revelation, he speaks for many liberals who are finding themselves increasingly charmed by the CM who has come as a breath of fresh air to even his diehard critics.

Soon after taking over as CM, Thackeray admitted in the assembly that his party had made a mistake mixing religion with politics. The Tablighi Jamaat meeting last month in Delhi and the spread of COVID-19 related to this has created a major furore in many states, and more confusion has been created because of the spread of fake news on this subject. Maharashtra is one of the states which has positives cases traced back to the Delhi event — however, Thackeray has issued a stern warning that his government will not tolerate the spreading of fake news or the communalisation of the pandemic.

The metamorphosis in the political character of the Shiv Sena in such a short time has surprised many, but one can say that Thackeray has finally left behind the shadow of his father’s legacy and his party’s long association with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Thackeray has managed to give the Shiv Sena a character of its own — and in this he is proving more like his grandfather Prabodhankar Thackeray. Prabodhankar Thackeray was a fierce opponent of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), including Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. In his writings in the 1930s and 40s he took them on in no uncertain terms. He was a socialist to the core and one of the leading lights of the Samyukta Maharashtra Samiti for the unification of Maharashtra. Prabodhankar Thackeray would have greatly disapproved of his son Bal Thackeray’s association with the BJP, and the communalisation of the Shiv Sena, which was originally set up for the benefit of the Marathi manoos, irrespective of caste, creed or religion.

Many, including Uddhav Thackeray’s friends and well-wishers, thought that his government would not last more than six months. However, before that the whole world has been brought to a virtual standstill, exposing the mismanagements of even the best and most well-known global leaders.

In Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray has had a grip on the crisis right from the first week. In this he has proved wrong his fiercest critic, former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. At the beginning of the crisis in the state there was an attempt to popularise the hashtag, #MaharashtraNeedsDevendra on social media—that did not pick momentum as the people realised that Thackeray was managing the crisis reasonably well. Similar efforts from other quarters were blunted as well.

Thackeray has so far also managed to paper over the cracks within his own government, especially from Deputy Chief Minister and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar. It has been speculated that Ajit Pawar would want to control the affairs of the government as Thackeray is a greenhorn in legislative politics and governance. Here also Thackeray has circumvented what could have become a bottleneck and bone of contention — to a great extent he has decentralised the functioning of the ministries and given greater autonomy to ministers and bureaucrats. Thackeray steps in only when there is a problem or an inter-ministerial difference of opinion.

Recently, Ajit Pawar announced a decision to cut the salaries of government staff to meet the costs incurred to fight the pandemic. This cause great unrest and uncertainty at a time when the staff were facing great challenges to keep the government machinery running. This included staff working in the frontline and managing essential services. Before things went haywire, Thackeray took to the media to reassure the government staff that there would be no salary cuts—he clarified that the salary would be given in two parts to tide over a short term fund crisis. In this Thackeray not only diffused a problem but also showed that when it came to governance in Maharashtra, he was the boss.

It is largely believed that Thackeray has the wise counsel of NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who it is said advised Thackeray to consider moving away from the shadow of the BJP in Maharashtra. While Thackeray as Chief Minister cannot really be critical of the Centre’s actions in tackling the pandemic, Sharad Pawar has taken to social media warning people against superstitions and asking them to trust in science to fight the pandemic.

It is not that there are no problems with the State’s handling of the lockdown — reports have suggested traders charging for supplies that are meant to be free and crowds at markets. However, all these are a far cry from what happened to migrant workers in Delhi and other states. A crisis often makes or breaks a leader—this could be Uddhav Thackeray’s test.

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Sujata Anandan is a senior journalist and author. Views are personal.

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