Political tussle intensifies in worst-affected Maharashtra
Ravaged by the coronavirus disease, Maharashtra, which has seen the most number of cases and deaths on account of Covid-19, witnessed a political war of words as well as a degree of uncertainty over the stability of the Uddhav Thackeray-led government on Tuesday, even as the ruling dispensation expressed confidence in its strength and performance.
The day saw a set of three separate but inter-related developments. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, stepped up its attack on the state government’s handling of the pandemic ; while denying it was seeking to destabilise the government, party functionaries say the situation is ripe for President’s rule. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said the Congress was not the “key decision-maker’ in the state — prompting allegations that the Congress is seeking to distance itself from the state government of which it is a part. And amid speculation about his meeting with the CM and governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar claimed the government is safe and accused Fadnavis of being “impatient”. The Shiv Sena claimed the meeting between Pawar and Thackeray as routine.
Speculation over the fate of the government picked up on Monday when Pawar -- widely considered the key architect of the Maha Vikas Aghadi , comprising the Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress, formed after the 2019 assembly elections — met Koshyari and also had his third meeting in the span of weeks with Thackeray, who is under criticism for his handling of the pandemic.
Pawar’s meeting with the governor came in the wake of r calls to the constitutional head of the state by BJP leaders — including BJP Member of Parliament and former CM Narayan Rane — to dismiss the government and recommend President’s rule in the state. “The meeting with the governor was a customary meet. We are all focusing on coronavirus pandemic,.” Pawar said . In an interview to NDTV, he termed Fadnavis “an impatient man”. “There are no differences in the MVA, there is no doubt that the government will last for the entire term. It’s surprising that BJP thinks the government unstable.”
Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut, a key intermediary between the coalition partners, said that Pawar met Thackeray to discuss the future course of action for the state government and measure to be taken to tackle Covid-19. “If we take Pawar saheb’s suggestions and guidance on these matters then what is the harm. The country’s prime minister too takes his guidance.”
But even as the two senior partners in the government sought to allay uncertainties, Rahul Gandhi’s remark — in the course of a press conference over the central government’s handling of the pandemic — created a stir.
When asked about the situation in the state, Gandhi pointed out that as one of the most connected places in the country, the virus was going to act aggressively in Maharashtra. He added that the state was one of the most important assets India had, that it was the centre of business, and the Government of India must support Maharashtra’s people and government. He then added, “I would like to make a differentiation here. We are supporting the government in Maharashtra, but, we are not the key decision maker in Maharashtra. We are the key decision maker in Punjab; we are the key decision maker in Chhattisgarh, in Rajasthan, in Puducherry. So, there is a difference between running a government and supporting a government.”
In the assembly of 288 members, the MVA enjoys the support of 170 legislators, which include 56 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from the Sena, 54 from NCP, 44 from Congress, and a range of smaller parties. The BJP has 105 seats and claims to have the support of 13 other legislators.
Fadnavis, however, used Gandhi’s comment to accuse the Congress of shirking responsibility, besides alleging that the state government is losing grip over the situation. He claimed that it would fall due to its own “internal contradictions”, listed out the Centre’s support to the state, and said that Maharashtra needed “assertive leadership and bold decision-making”.
Fadnavis, who is currently the leader of opposition in the state assembly, claimed that the Centre had given the state nearly ₹28,000 crore in the last three months through food subsidies, devolution of taxes, direct benefit transfer, assistance for migrant labourers and health equipment. But he added that the state government had little grip over the situation. “In Mumbai, people are dying on the streets, hospitals are overcharging but there is no control of the situation. The number of coronavirus cases and fatalities is alarming in Maharashtra.”
When asked about whether the BJP is seeking to oust the government and demands for President’s Rule, Fadnavis said: “We are in no rush to form the government. We are focussing only on battling coronavirus. The governor makes observations and independently reports to the centre...We will, however, continue to pressurise the government to wake up and address the grim situation before them.”
Back in Delhi, after two meetings of the BJP’s core group that deals with the state, party leaders said while the BJP is not in any rush to stake claim to forming the government, it will prefer President’s rule. “Now the situation in the state is very precarious. So we have approached the Governor to convey our concerns,” said a senior functionary who asked not to be named
A second functionary, familiar with the thinking in the party, said the BJP does not want to do anything which will create a perception that it is seeking to topple the government.
“The situation in the state is for all to see. The way the government has handled the pandemic, its response is a testament that it has failed to offer support to the people during this grave challenge. Our party workers have exposed the situation in hospitals, these are our prime concerns,” the second functionary said.
Responding to the demands for President’s rule, Sena’s Raut said, “If the Opposition feels that measures are not being taken for tackling the coronavirus pandemic and President’s rule should be imposed, then Gujarat is fit for it.” Gujarat is ruled by the BJP and is also facing a serious threat from the disease. As of Tuesday night, the fatality rate in Gujarat was 6.2% compared to Maharashtra’s 3.3%.
“It seems that BJP does want to destablise the government despite their denials in public or at least prepare ground to create a strong perception that the MVA government is failing to tackle coronavirus. However, numbers in the assembly are strongly in the favour of MVA allies; there is no scope of defection by MLAs at this stage. Even for the governor to send a negative report to the centre saying the state government has failed, he will need to substantiate it. There also has to be a strong public sentiment against this government in civil society, which is frankly not there,’’ said Surendra Jondhale, political analyst.