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Uddhav keeps his cool as Chakravyuh builds around him

By SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF
Last updated on: April 24, 2020 15:27 IST
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If Uddhav Thackeray is fazed by the BJP's attempts to build a narrative against his government in order to bring it down, he is not showing it.
He has fought against all odds to remain in the CM's chair and faced difficulties with a smile, reports Syed Firdaus Ashraf.

IMAGE: Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray offers hand sanitiser to a state minister as he chairs a cabinet meeting, April 7, 2020. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

When Uddhav Thackeray was sworn in as Maharashtra's chief minister in November 2019 at Mumbai's Shivaji Park, most of those present there had one question in mind: 'Kitna Chalegi?' -- how long would the Maha Vikas Aghadi (government last?

In a first-of-its-kind experiment, the Shiv Sena, the bête noire of the Congress, came to power by joining hands with the grand old party and its ally -- the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party -- after breaking its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, its partner of 25 years and denying then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis a chance to return to power despite the mandate in the BJP-Sena's favour in the assembly elections.

The BJP and the Shiv Sena had contested the 2019 assembly election in alliance, with the BJP winning 105 and Shiv the Sena winning 56 in the 288-member assembly.

The alliance collapsed because the Sena demanded the CM's post on a rotational basis, which the BJP rejected.

The BJP could not reach the magic figure of 145 seats to prove its majority.

Political pundits gave the new MVA government six months at most to survive. It was believed it could fall due to the internal contradictions among the allies, their rivalries -- or defections engineered by the BJP's 'Chanakya' Amit Anilchandra Shah.

Six months later, nothing seems to be going wrong for the MVA. It is smooth sailing for the government, and has cleared its first hurdle.

The only major hiccup came when Uddhav Thackeray openly supported Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi's move on a National Population Register and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which the Congress and NCP opposed tooth and nail.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic compelled the Centre's plans to be postponed, saving the MVA allies some blushes in the bargain.

Last week emerged the first signs of Thackeray landing on a sticky wicket when Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari -- a former BJP chief minister of Uttrakhand -- showed no signs of accepting the state cabinet's proposal to nominate the chief minister as a member of the legislative council from the governor's quota.

Article 164(4) of the Constitution mandates that a minister or CM has to be elected as a member of the council or assembly within six months of assuming office.

Though Thackeray was all set to become a member of the Maharashtra legislative council as elections were due on April 24, the Election Commission postponed the polls on account of the pandemic.

If Thackeray is not elected by May 28, which is six months from the date of his swearing-in, he may have to step down.

The Maharashtra cabinet sent a proposal to the governor to nominate Thackeray from his quota to the legislative council, but Koshyari has kept silent.

"If there was some other governor in place of Koshyari, he would have approved the cabinet's recommendation. But Koshyari has not done it yet," says Dr Nitin Raut, Maharashtra's energy minister and the Maharashtra Congress's working president.

Sanjay Raut, the Shiv Sena's Rajya Sabha member, told a Marathi news television channel, 'There is a vacancy. Who is stopping Governor Koshyari from electing Uddhavji to become a council member?'

Political observers say the BJP has not forgiven Thackeray for breaking the pre-poll alliance and forming a government with the Congress and NCP's help.

Sena sources, however, say the party is prepared for the worst.

If the governor continues to play hard ball, Thackeray will resign before May 28 and will be sworn in again, which should give him another six months to become an MLC.

What no doubt worries the BJP is Thackeray's rising popularity in the state.

"Just look at Fadnavis's body language and you can feel that he is depressed and frustrated. He thought he could do what Shivraj Singh Chouhan did in Madhya Pradesh or (B S) Yediyurappa did in Karnataka (engineer defections and replace the elected government). But now he knows he will never succeed against Thackeray," says a Sena leader who did not want to be quoted by name for this report.

Apart from the bitter history between the two allies, another worry for the BJP's central leadership is that Thackeray's simplicity and straightforward approach is winning him popularity in Maharashtra, despite him being having no prior experience in either administration or electoral politics.

Although Mumbai and Maharashtra are the worst-hit in the COVID-19 crisis, Thackeray's daily press conferences are giving much needed confidence to the people.

His simple manner of communication tells them that the state is in safe hands. His style of functioning has won him many accolades, even from those who looked askance at him when he joined hands with the Congress and NCP.

Elections to the cash-rich BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation are due in 2022 and the BJP knows well that if Thackeray sails through the coronavirus crisis then there is no stopping the Shiv Sena becoming a dominant force in Maharashtra -- when just six months ago it was considered the BJP's 'B' team.

The BJP is trying to corner Thackeray in every possible way.

The BJP has chosen to target the Congress, a member of the ruling alliance in Maharashtra. BJP leaders have come up with a new name to mock the Sena: 'Sonia Sena' being 'run by Italians'.

When two sadhus and their driver were lynched in Palghar, a township close to Mumbai, last week, the BJP got a chance to target the Maharashtra government by creating a narrative that Hindus are not safe under a 'Hindutva Sarkar' led by Thackeray.

Republic TV anchor Arnab Goswami, considered a bullhorn for the BJP government at the Centre, wasted no time in denouncing Congress President Sonia Gandhi on his show, blaming her for the lynching.

"Arnab has insulted journalism. All this is happening with the BJP's support as they want to destabilise the government in Maharashtra," says Dr Nitin Raut.

As Congress leaders across the country filed defamation cases against Goswami and lodged cases for his comments against Sonia Gandhi and the Palghar incident came the attack on his car when he drove home on Wednesday night.

The unintended, but obvious, fallout of this incident is not just the changing tenor of the Goswami headlines -- from target to victim -- but also serve to demonstrate how the Shiv Sena will treat a case of violence against one of the BJP's favourite mediapersons.

Thackeray, on his part, has realised that the one thing he should not do is to criticise Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi whose popularity is huge even among his own voter base.

Therefore, whenever Thackeray speaks about the COVID-19 crisis, he says nice things about Modi.

'Modiji aur mera sampark accha chal raha hai. Kendra sarkar se humein madad aa rahi hai (Modiji and I are in constant touch and the central government is helping Maharashtra),' he said at one briefing.

Ditto when the Modi government sent central teams to monitor the COVID-19 situation in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and West Bengal -- non-BJP ruled states.

While the West Bengal government was critical of the move, Thackeray welcomed it, fully knowing that the Centre was playing politics by not sending a team to Gujarat which has the second highest coronavirus cases in the country after Maharashtra.

Thackeray's task, in that sense, is cut out.

On one hand, he has to lead the state's fight against the pandemic, and on the other counter the BJP's social media hordes, who every now and then start hashtags like '#ResignUddhav' or '#UddhavWorstCMEver' on Twitter, but without turning on Modi.

But if Thackeray is fazed by the Chakravyuh being sought to be erected around him, he is not showing it. He has fought against all odds to remain in the chair and faced difficulties with a smile in the last six months.

But will his smile last for the next four years?

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SYED FIRDAUS ASHRAF / Rediff.com in Mumbai
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