Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s biggest failure—the art of blocking people whom he does not feel comfortable with or trust—has become the trigger for his party’s latest existential crisis today.
Pushed to a corner and informally stripped of importance within the framework of the party and the government, rebel leader Eknath Shinde has bounced back with a force the CM had not expected.
Even though there were whispers within the Shiv Sena of Shinde planning to cross over to the BJP, the chief minister, instead of taking corrective steps, elevated his son Aaditya—the junior-most minister—to liaise between him and his Cabinet. While Shinde, aided by the BJP, tries to dismantle the party one Shiv Sainik at a time, Thackeray’s toughest battle is holding on to the party founded by his father Balasaheb Thackeray.
A big flashpoint in the battle of perceptions and narratives is Uddhav’s directive to the state chief secretary to intimate all his cabinet ministers to send their departmental files to Aaditya’s office for perusal. “Aaditya would look at a file, take notes and only then would it be sent to the CM’s office. The CM relies a lot on Aaditya’s feedback,” a senior bureaucrat in the know of things tells Outlook. Thackeray’s dependence on his son instead of the experienced voices angered many senior leaders, including his own Cabinet ministers.
The CM had circumvented the intra-party upward mobility queue to accommodate his son, the 31-year-old Aaditya, a dynast in a hurry whose rise has been meteoric. He is a permanent attendee at all meetings attended or called by the CM, irrespective of the department concerned. Aaditya has more bureaucrats on his speed dial than the CM, say sources.
Since March 2020, when social distancing became the norm due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Thackeray had been following it in letter and spirit. He became a “virtual CM”, always available, but only online. As the pandemic raged across Maharashtra, he remained confined to the safety of his home. He had delayed moving into the CM’s official residence—Varsha—at Malabar Hill in downtown Mumbai, and continued to live in his personal residence—Matoshree—in suburban Bandra.
Everyone, including grassroots workers of his party—watched and interacted with him from a distance. As the pandemic spread, the CM appeared to become more aloof and distant. Social distancing—meant to keep the disease at bay—widened the chasm between him and his Shiv Sainiks, who appeared adrift, unable to interact with their chief, as they once used to do with their previous leader and Uddhav’s father, Balasaheb.
“Balasaheb lived in the city but he was connected to the rural parts of the state. He knew the pulse of the Shiv Sainiks. Had Uddhav ji been more accessible, this crisis could have been averted,” says Sriram Mandke, a Sainik from Ahmednagar in central Maharashtra.
The growing distance made the rank-and-file edgy and they started voicing their unease, some even saying the party must sit on the Opposition benches instead of the CM’s chair. As Uddhav’s Man Friday Milind Narvekar—widely disliked by Sainiks for his “arrogance” and “high-handedness”—grew powerful, the rank-and-file grew distant. It is this dislike for Narvekar which is now directed at Uddhav and has become the trigger for the CM’s present political predicament. It was only after he drew flak from all quarters for his growing inaccessibility, did Uddhav think of moving out of Matoshree and of attending meetings in person.
He even moved into his official residence, which he vacated soon after the rebellion began. Sena sources spoke to Outlook about Uddhav’s reluctance—then and now—for holding meetings in the CM’s chambers in Mantralaya—the secretariat building—as it was difficult to maintain social distancing norms.
So, the entire government machinery was moved to the spacious meeting room in Sahyadri—the government’s chic guest house, a stone’s throw away from Varsha—whenever the CM called a meeting. “It is easier for one man to travel to Mantralaya than have the entire government machinery shift to Sahyadri for meetings. It is such an irritant!” a senior bureaucrat told Outlook, echoing the sentiments of many others.
While Uddhav’s online interactions, including Facebook, Lives with people during the Covid-19 lockdowns and now, during the current crisis, has won him many followers, particularly women, his partymen started turning away. Sainiks, including senior leaders, complained they have turned away after long waits without an audience, as Matoshree and Varsha turned into impregnable fortresses, guarded zealously by Narvekar and his coterie.
Uddhav had left the bridge-building with Sainiks to senior leaders—a majority of whom have now rebelled against his leadership, and are ensconced in Guwahati. While Thackeray operated from behind, rebel leader Shinde, the minister for urban development—now dropped from the Cabinet—was moving around the state, strengthening his people-connect. Whether it was the heatwave, farm losses or other pressing issues, Shinde was always found touring the hinterland, establishing his footprint across Maharashtra.
A senior Sena leader who has decided to take the middle path in the current crisis told Outlook that it was a slight to Shinde during the government formation in October-November 2019 that has now come back to haunt Uddhav. “It was clearly evident Uddhav ji did not like Shinde saheb. Actually, Shinde saheb was poised to be the CM when the MVA was established. Even the CM’s special security had been deputed to Shinde saheb’s house after the police were informed that he would be the next CM. But Pawar saheb wanted a pan-Indian face for the coalition and foisted Uddhav ji on the seat. When he had given his word to make someone the CM, then Uddhav ji should not have taken the seat himself,” said the leader.
The disapproval of his coalition constituents meant it was always going to be a tightrope walk so far as Hindutva was concerned. Neither could he pursue it aggressively, nor could he shelve it completely. A flashback to the events of 2019 will cast better light on the “return to Hindutva” demand by the rebels. In the last week of December 2019, Uddhav—who was the newly-elected CM then—had expressed regrets that his party had mixed politics with religion and had partnered BJP for 25 years. In March 2020, when Uddhav went on a much-publicised visit to Ayodhya to commemorate 100 days of the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, Thackeray had announced a donation of Rs 1 crore towards the building of the Ram Mandir. He had also carried soil from Raigad Fort—the capital of Maratha icon Chhatrapati Shivaji—to Ayodhya, to the evident displeasure of other MVA constituents, the Congress and the NCP. He was also the first leader to visit Ayodhya after the Supreme Court verdict on November 9, 2019, which gave the go-ahead for the building of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir.
Yet, on August 5, 2020, when the BJP did bhoomi pujan of the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, Uddhav was not even invited. Sainiks, who were already uneasy at the MVA coalition with their ideological opposites, were further angered that their party was not invited to the Ayodhya jamboree. No Sainik had gone to Ayodhya for the bhoomi pujan. This was the first signal for Sainiks that their party was veering away from Hindutva. Subsequent events, where he was not invited or did not go for functions attended by PM Modi in Mumbai and elsewhere in Maharashtra, did not sit well with Sainiks as well, said sources.
In the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Sena’s slogan was “Pehle Mandir, baad mey sarkar (First let’s build the Mandir, then we’ll build the government)”. Then Uddhav formed the government with parties that abhorred Hindutva. It mattered little that Uddhav had worn a saffron kurta at his swearing-in. By then, Sainiks had already started asking for more than just symbolic gestures. It seeded a three-year-long build-up of frustration. Now the dam appears to have burst.