In the context of politics in Maharashtra, a Thackeray as the chief minister is a very big deal indeed. Uddhav Thackeray, who took over as the CM last week, has done what his father, Bal Thackeray had sworn never to do – take office. Not only that, there will now be two Thackerays in the house, since his son Aaditya too has been elected an MLA.
Uddhav Thackeray will now be in the firing line for the government’s performance and it is up to him to show that he – and his party – can administer well too. Being the CM brings its own set of challenges, quite unique to him, and his performance can set the path for his party’s future. He has taken quite a risk – the kind of risk his father had stayed away from. If handled well, it could work to his advantage, if not, it could set him and his party back for a long time.
Bal Thackeray, who founded the Shiv Sena in 1966, was clear about never wanting to run for elections. He had all the power without direct responsibility and relished being the ‘remote control’, as he called himself after Manohar Joshi became the party’s first chief minister in 1995.
Thackeray senior wanted to avoid the pulls and pressures of running a government but yet have a big say in the way the state was run. Whether or not in power, the high and the mighty of Mumbai and the state made a beeline to him and kept him in good humour. He enjoyed that and rarely got into the hurly-burly of the hustings.
The Sena, set up ostensibly to fight for the rights of the ‘Marathi manoos‘, sons of the soil, had morphed into a political force by the late 1970s and soon assumed control of the country’s richest civic body, the Bombay Municipal Corporation. It also came to be known as a violent organisation that often settled matters in the ‘Sena way’, which sent dread in the hearts of people. The Sena was involved and indicted in the riots in 1992-93 in the wake of the Babri demolition and by then, Thackeray had discovered Hindutva.
The Sena did well in the next elections and formed its first government. But it never got an opportunity after that till 2014, when Narendra Modi rose to the top and helped his party win 122 seats in Maharashtra. The Sena fought separately, getting 63 seats, and sat in the opposition in the first few weeks, joining the BJP only when the latter needed a majority.
It was a fractious five years, with the Sena constantly sniping at the BJP and Devendra Fadnavis, with the backing of his Delhi bosses, working to undermine his partner.
The Sena, after holding out for a long time, finally agreed to join hands to fight the 2019 elections after extracting a promise – or so it said – to share the post of the chief minister. The BJP has been less than vehement in its denial, but both sides went along during the campaign. But it became apparent that Uddhav Thackeray had political ambitions and when his son was named as a candidate for a Mumbai constituency, it was the very first entry of a family member in the electoral fray. Uddhav and his son had gradually led their party away from its older style of functioning, where battles would be fought on the street, to a more conventional political organisation which would concentrate more on issues that mattered to the citizen.
The results came as a shock to the BJP, when it won a mere 105 seats. The BJP game plan was to score big and reduce the status of the Sena even more, but while the Sena lost a few seats from the last time, its base proved intact and it felt emboldened to reiterate its demand for a shared chief ministership.
In the shadows was Sharad Pawar, who reportedly was guiding the Sena while also consolidating his own and the Congress forces. In the end, despite the BJP’s desperate bid to get its own chief minister sworn in with the hope that Ajit Pawar would add substantial numbers, the plan failed.
Pawar was clear — if the NCP and the Congress were to join the Sena, the chief minister would have to be Uddhav Thackeray. It is a smart ploy — it gives him real power, which would be interesting, but also exposes him to the sunlight; now he will have to perform.
There is a lot of initial goodwill, and the first few decisions have got positive reviews, but the state is in a difficult situation and he will have to handle tough issues like putting finances back on the rails, handled the rural crisis and get much needed investment in. In addition, he will have to manage his coalition partners, who are bound to get offended if he pushes his Hindutva line or if the Sena reverts to its old ways on the streets.
Along with the challenges, there are opportunities too. The problems of Maharashtra are well known. Some are long standing, others endemic and many of recent creation. Governments past have not been able to successfully tackle the problems of farmers. Urban infrastructure is a shambles. Investment is sluggish and unemployment, like elsewhere in India, is growing.
One of the characteristics of the new BJP dispensation has been announcing grand, showpiece projects. Fadnavis followed in Modi’s footsteps and was pushing for the coastal road, the refinery in Nanar and the Mumbai-Nagpur highway.
Uddhav Thackeray has already opposed the last two though where he stands on the coastal road is yet to be seen. He has also said that he would stop the bullet train, though it is a central project and Maharashtra’s role is limited to that of facilitating land acquisition. He has announced a review of the metro shed at Aarey, which has pleased environmentalists and if he goes slow on prosecuting those arrested and jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case, he will win a lot of support.
It should not, however, be forgotten that while this government is not as hardline as the BJP, the Sena is big on nationalist rhetoric and Hindutva and is all in favour of mega infrastructure projects. The party’s past record of managing the municipal corporation, where it has been in a majority for over 25 years, is less than impressive. Thackeray himself is a newbie and is not likely to have too much elbow room, with two coalition partners ensuring that he doesn’t stray too far from the common minimum programme.
Besides, Thackeray has to keep his flock together. The BJP, humiliated in its bid to form a government, will make repeated onslaughts on the Sena and other parties to break the coalition. If the government falters, many MLAs may be tempted.
But, within these constraints, there are opportunities too. If the Thackeray government takes a human approach to deal with issues, engaging with citizens, and showing empathy in trying to understand the genuine problems of the vulnerable, whether farmers or slum dwellers, it will be a big, welcome change from the past.
The Fadnavis government did not believe in listening to the people—that arrogant, top-down approach will not work. So far Thackeray has made the right noises. He knows not just he, but the Thackeray name is on trial. He has no option but to make a mark. Uddhav Thackeray may yet end up surprising everyone.