Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray. (HT file)
Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray. (HT file)

In Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray’s repeated encounters with crises

In his 15-month tenure as chief minister of Maharashtra, Thackeray has faced many crises, the latest being the arrest of police officer Sachin Vaze in connection with an explosive-laden SUV found parked outside billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s house last month
UPDATED ON MAR 16, 2021 06:56 AM IST

In November 2019, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray formed a coalition government with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Congress after parting ways with long-time ally Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In his 15-month tenure as chief minister of Maharashtra, Thackeray has faced many crises, the latest being the arrest of police officer Sachin Vaze in connection with an explosive-laden SUV found parked outside billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s house last month. The case, which is also related to the mysterious death of a Thane-based businessman linked to the SUV, led to ruckus in the House while it was in session with leader of Opposition Devendra Fadnavis seeking Vaze’s arrest. Meanwhile, the National Investigation Authority (NIA), a central agency that falls under the Union home ministry, took over the investigation of the explosives case. This situation follows close on the heels of the Covid-19 healthcare crisis.

Here’s a look at some of the fires that Thackeray-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition government has had to face:

Covid-19 pandemic

Barely four months after he took over as chief minister, Thackeray had to face an unprecedented health crisis in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic. With international travellers coming in large numbers through Mumbai airport, it did not take much time for Mumbai to see a significant rise of Covid-19 cases. By May 2020, Mumbai and Maharashtra emerged as major hot spots of Covid-19. With limited administrative experience and limited resources at his disposal, Thackeray faced an uphill task.

The first few months of the pandemic saw the situation worsen as droves of migrant workers left the city despite a nationwide lockdown imposed by the Centre on March 25. Inadequate health infrastructure meant that the sharp spike in cases began to stretch the hospitals and the healthcare workers to their limit. The Covid-19 trajectory in the city peaked at an average of 2,268 new cases a day for the week ending October 3, but by then, the city and the state had a game plan in place. Jumbo Covid centres were built; a three-tier system of hospitals and care was created; testing numbers increased and remained consistently high at a state-level. Mumbai gradually began to lift curbs since June 2020 under its “Mission Begin Again”, even amid the first wave. On February 1, Mumbai resumed local train services for all, its biggest unlock measure, but since then, fresh cases have been on the rise, causing authorities to bring back a slew of measures, including sealing buildings and tightening quarantine norms.

Thackeray’s election to state legislature

It was something never seen in state politics. Thackeray, who was not a member of either House of the state legislature, needed to get elected to the assembly or the council within six months of taking oath as chief minister. When he took over, Thackeray had planned to enter the upper house of state legislature by way of election in which legislators were to elect nine members of the council. Since the election could not be held due to Covid lockdown and Thackeray had to get elected by May 27, 2020, the state cabinet requested Governor BS Koshyari to nominate the chief minister as a member to legislative council as one such position was vacant. Koshyari, however, did not accept the recommendation despite two requests by the state cabinet. Failure to get elected could have become a political crisis for Thackeray.

Finally, he had to put in a request with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after which Koshyari asked the Election Commission to hold pending election for nine vacant posts in the upper house. Thackeray was elected unopposed along with others on May 14, 2020.

Run-ins with the Governor

Friction between Raj Bhavan and the Thackeray government has been a constant feature of this government’s tenure. It began with Koshyari’s position on Thackeray’s election. In the past year, Koshyari has publicly expressed his unhappiness over the state’s action against journalist Arnab Goswami and actor Kangana Ranaut. There was also a bitter exchange of letters between Thackeray and him over a delay in reopening temples in the state. The Governor wrote to the CM on October 12, asking why temples were not being reopened and even asked him: “Have your turned secular?” Thackeray wrote back saying he would do what was in the interest of the people. The state government allowed reopening of temples after a little over a month, from November 16.

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Koshyari also rejected state government’s decision not to hold university examinations due to Covid-19. Last month, Thackeray’s office did not give Koshyari permission to use state government’s plane to fly to Uttarakhand. Koshyari had to take a commercial flight. The Governor has still not cleared a list of 12 persons to be nominated to the Upper House of the state legislature despite repeated requests by the government. The list was submitted to the Governor on November 6, 2020, and the issue remains a contentious one.

Palghar and Sushant Singh Rajput

Two cases became major controversies for the Thackeray government. In April 2020, a mob in a village in Palghar district lynched two religious figures and a man driving them, on the suspicion of being child-lifters, according to the local police. The BJP, however, alleged that the attack was communally motivated. The government handed over the case to Criminal Investigation Department of the state police. Home minister Anil Deshmukh also announced that 101 persons were arrested in the case. Action was also taken against 18 police personnel for dereliction of duty and their departmental inquiry is on.

In case of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in June 2020, BJP MP and former CM Narayan Rane said Rajput was murdered and the government was trying to save the culprits. BJP legislator Ram Kadam alleged that the government was ignoring the drug mafia that had links to Bollywood which could be a significant aspect of mystery surrounding Rajput’s death. The apex court handed over the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which has not reached any conclusion as yet. Both cases saw a social media offensive against Thackeray.

Sena minister forced to resign

Sena leader Sanjay Rathod became the first minister of the MVA government to resign February 28, following a controversy. It was over the death of a 23-year old woman who allegedly died by suicide in Pune on February 8. Soon, a bunch of audio clips went viral and BJP leader Chitra Wagh demanded that the police find out if one of the persons in the tapes was forest minister Rathod.

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Though Thackeray was not keen to take action against his minister initially, he had to order the latter to step down as the issue became bigger and NCP chief Sharad Pawar advised the CM to take action to minimise damage to the MVA government’s image. Rathod comes from Banjara community which has strong presence in some parts of the state. The delay on part of Thackeray to take action against Rathod gave enough ammunition to the Opposition to target him.

The Munde matter

Dhananjay Munde, the nephew of late Gopinath Munde, joined the NCP after his uncle picked cousin Pankaja as the political heir. He was made the social justice minister in the Thackeray government. On January 11, in a letter to the city police commissioner, a woman accused him of rape. Denying the allegations, Munde said that he was in a relationship with the woman’s sister with whom he also had two children. He escaped the axe as two leaders, from BJP and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, came forward and alleged that the same woman had blackmailed them in the past. The woman eventually withdrew her allegations.

Speaker’s election

Thackeray faces another challenge — the election of the Speaker of the Assembly. Following Congress’s decision to make former Speaker Nana Patole its state unit president, the post is now vacant. On February 16, Governor Koshyari asked the government to hold the election. Thackeray chose not to hold the same during the crucial budget session that was held between March 1 and 10. His alliance partner Congress — which has the Speaker’s post — is not happy and wants the election early while NCP is not keen on the same. There is no time limit to hold the election.

Aarey Colony and Metro car shed

On October 11, 2020, Thackeray announced that he was scrapping the controversial car shed for Metro 3 line of Mumbai Metro network at Aarey Milk Colony, one of the few remaining green spaces in Mumbai. Instead, the Metro depot would be built at Kanjurmarg, he announced. On December 17, the Bombay high court stayed the state’s move to transfer 102 acres of land at Kanjurmarg for the construction of car shed. The court stayed the transfer on a petition by the Central Government which claimed the ownership of the land. Not only has this delayed the project, it is also an embarrassment for the government

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The state government had declared that the plot belongs to it and it made more sense to have an integrated car shed for multiple Metro lines at Kanjurmarg. Thackeray had announced that the plan was better than the Devendra Fadnavis-led government’s move to build a car shed at Aarey Colony. The government is yet to solve the tangle.

Economy contraction

The Covid lockdown has affected Maharashtra’s economy. The revenue of the state is expected to fall sharply by 57,959 crore, while the estimated revenue in 2020-21 was 347,457 crore. The state’s economic survey has predicted a negative 8% fall of state economy in 2020-21. The industry and services sectors that contribute heavily to state’s revenue are expected to show negative growth at -11.3% and - 9% respectively. The state’s debt is estimated to be 538,304 crore in 2020-21. Meanwhile, the state government is awaiting about 50,000 crore from the Centre on account of GST compensation, devolution in central taxes and allocation for centrally funded schemes. Reviving the state’s economy will be a tough challenge for Thackeray. Since the central government is not exactly friendly with the MVA government, there will be more trouble for Thackeray if he doesn’t get Central funding in time.

Antilia scare

An abandoned vehicle with 200 gelatine sticks found outside industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s house Antilia has turned into a political fight, with the BJP accusing the MVA of shielding a police officer who is implicated in the case. The MVA government responded by creating a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to probe the death by suicide of a Dadra and Nagar Haveli legislator, who named a former BJP legislator in a suicide note. In the current case, Thane businessman Mansukh Hiran who was linked to the vehicle found outside Antilia on February 25, was found dead 10 days later. Sachin Vaze, the cop, has been defended by Shiv Sena leaders. On Sunday, he was remanded to NIA custody. BJP leaders are demanding that Vaze’s links with Shiv Sena leaders should be probed. Former chief minister Narayan Rane has demanded President’s rule in the state. Chief minister Thackeray has maintained silence on the issue for the past couple of days. This issue may turn into one of his biggest challenges yet.

Political analyst Hemant Desai said: “Rarely any chief minister of the state has faced one crisis after another as faced by Uddhav Thackeray. He has not shown the political acumen needed to counter an aggressive opposition like BJP. Besides, there is a clear lack of coordination among the three partners of the ruling MVA which is seen in the government’s scattered response to different problems.”

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