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Maharashtra govt under strain as pressure builds

The Uddhav Thackeray-led regime is performing a veritable balancing act. The lack of coordinated strategies, the weakening authority of the leadership, growing disgruntlement among its constituents, the inability to set a narrative, and poor damage control mechanisms have seen it lurch from one crisis to another, reports Dhaval Kulkarni.

Cobbled together after the assembly elections in a set of circumstances unique to Maharashtra’s politics, the Maha Vikas Aghadi government — comprising the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress — was seen as the textbook example of a disparate alliance. The MVA experiment, where three unlikely partners joined forces to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power, was claimed to have created a template for similar experiments in other states.

However, after a year-and-half in the saddle, the Uddhav Thackeray-led regime is performing a veritable balancing act. The lack of coordinated strategies, the weakening authority of the leadership, growing disgruntlement among its constituents, the inability to set a narrative, and poor damage control mechanisms have seen it lurch from one crisis to another.

This includes the raging Covid pandemic, the controversy over the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, and the resignation of the Shiv Sena’s forest minister Sanjay Rathod after the death by suicide of a 22-year-old TikTok star.

But the February 25 bomb scare outside Antilla, the South Mumbai residence of Reliance Chairman Mukesh Ambani, and its unfolding fallout, is the most serious crisis to have confronted the MVA, so far. This led to “encounter specialist” Assistant Police Inspector Sachin Waze’s arrest by the National Investigating Agency for his alleged role in planting the explosives.

Param Bir Singh, who was shunted as Mumbai commissioner of police in the aftermath of this case, accused Home Minister and NCP leader Anil Deshmukh of using Waze to collect slush money. Deshmukh quit on April 5 after the Bombay high court ordered a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into charges of corruption against him. The Supreme Court dismissed the MVA government and Deshmukh’s plea challenging the HC’s order.

“This is not a question of a minister or two resigning. The fundamental flaw is that the MVA government lacks a popular mandate,” charged a senior BJP leader, adding more ministers could find themselves in controversy soon.

He claimed that instead of actively destabilising the state government, the BJP, which is licking its wounds after being ditched by the Shiv Sena, would wait for things to take their own course, while trying to bleed the MVA with the metaphorical thousand cuts.

A Shiv Sena minister claimed the BJP was pushing for the imposition of President’s rule or governor’s rule in Maharashtra by citing constitutional breakdown of the state machinery. “The resignation of ministers, the law-and-order situation, and the growing Covid crisis may be used for creating a case for this,” he noted.

The minister admitted the MVA had erred in crisis management. Strategic blunders like Thackeray’s brazen defence of Waze, claiming he was “not Osama bin Laden”, have come back to haunt the Sena, after a letter by the now-suspended policeman accusing transport minister Anil Parab of graft. As Parab is one of Thackeray’s closest aides, this is seen as an attack on his party boss and chief minister.

A Congress leader admitted the MVA regime lacked coherent political or communication strategies, leading to its constituents speaking in different voices.

“The Antilla case may not destabilise the government directly, but it has affected our public image,” admitted a Congress minister. He said if the BJP, which is the single-largest in the Maharashtra assembly, with a bench strength of 105, managed to notch up significant successes in the elections to five states, results of which will be declared on May 2, it could marshal disgruntled forces within the MVA.

In Maharashtra, the by-elections to the Pandharpur-Mangalwedha constituency, which have been necessitated by the death of NCP MLA Bharat Bhalke, will be keenly watched. The NCP has fielded Bhalke’s son Bhagirath, while the BJP’s candidate is Samadhan Autade. This will be the first such test of the popular mandate after the MVA came to power.

What has rattled the Shiv Sena and the Congress is NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s hush-hush meeting with Union Home Minister Amit Shah late last month. Though Pawar is seen as the MVA’s architect, he is reputed for being politically fickle.

Shiv Sena and Congress ministers admit to disgruntlement against their NCP counterparts. Though the Sena heads the government, party leaders admit that the NCP calls the shots with powerful portfolios like home, finance, water resources, housing, and rural development.

Sena legislators are also upset at recent imports to the party and independents being accommodated in the council of ministers from the Sena’s quota.

When asked about the longevity of the MVA government, a minister who was also part of previous Congress-NCP dispensations often points to how power, rather than conviction, serves as the ultimate glue for even the most unlikely of partners.

But with the MVA coming under intense strain, thus highlighting its inherent contradictions, will this glue keep the uneasy allies together? This is a question that only time can answer.

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