Uddhav Thackeray's tipping point in Maharashtra politics
It is a rarely discussed fact that Uddhav Thackeray, the incumbent chief minister of Maharashtra, is not an elected representative of any constituency. Although his family has created its own legacy in the state’s politics, he is the first from the clan to be appointed as the ‘Chief Minister’ of Maharashtra since his father, Balasaheb Thackeray, founded the Shiv Sena (Army of Shivaji) in 1966.
On May 14, this year, the scion of the Thackeray family, who is also the President of the Shiv Sena, was elected unopposed into the Maharashtra Legislative Council (MLC) along with eight other politicians. With this, he made his debut as a legislator for the first time since he entered politics in the early 90s. Albeit a first-timer, as a legislator now, his chief ministership is sealed with safety.
Known to be a soft-spoken individual and a tactician, the not-so-junior Thackeray played a crucial role from afar in the ‘Maha political drama’ of 2019 - a carefully trod race that rose him to the highest position in the state’s cabinet.
Today as he turns 60, we take note of the politician’s rise to the position of ‘Chief Minister’ of an ancient territory with its own complex mix of history, culture and demographics.
What was the ‘Maha political drama’?
During November last year, long before we were acquainted with terms like COVID-19 and PPEs, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance crossed the majority mark in the state legislative elections which were conducted in October. They secured 161 seats in the 288-member-strong Maharashtra assembly, comfortably flagging their dominance by crossing the ‘145-majority-mark’.
However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had displayed exuberant confidence in the time period preceding the polling and result days. Its leaders had claimed through speeches and exclusive bytes that they would win 220 seats in the 288-seat assembly. Eventually, the BJP acquired 105 seats. The actuality seemed meagre in front of their initial claims.
Reports from that time said that the slide in BJP’s share gave Shiv Sena (SS) the power to bargain for equal power-sharing in the state cabinet - a demand that the SS said was discussed before the elections and agreed upon by the central party’s chief strategist Amit Shah.
The 35-year-old partnership broke after the BJP rejected the claim that an ‘equal power-sharing deal’ had been discussed and agreed upon. Even though the break-up wasn’t formally announced, it was evident after Arvind Sawant - Sena’s lone wolf in the Union Cabinet - resigned from his post as the Minister of Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises.
Following that, Maharashtra’s Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari invited the state-grown saffron party to prove its numerical strength after the national saffron party expressed their inability to form the government independently. On Shiv Sena’s failure to stake a claim by November 11, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was given a 24-hour deadline to prove its brawn.
But in a sudden turn of events, after SS asked for three extra days post-November 11 and before the NCP’s deadline could be exhausted, the government at the Centre advised Koshyari to impose ‘President’s Rule’ in the state. Other politicians considered this move to be BJP’s bid to buy time for the horse-trading of MLAs from rival parties.
While Koshyari had given the BJP and Shiv Sena enough time to prove their ability to form the government, he had abruptly cut short on NCP’s time and denied Congress any chance as he said that it was impossible for the party to attain a majority unless “unconstitutional means” were adopted.
Consequently the Shiv Sena, Indian National Congress, and Nationalist Congress Party announced that they had come together to form a grand post-poll alliance termed ‘Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi’ (MVA). The alliance named Uddhav Thackeray as the Chief Ministerial candidate on November 22.
But in the wee hours of November 23, India woke up to one of the most sensational political dramas. Maharashtra’s incumbent Chief Minister had been sworn into his second term at 7 am with the support of NCP’s Ajit Pawar. The President’s Rule had also been revoked at 5.47 am. The ‘revolting Pawar’ had also been crowned the Deputy Chief Minister after he provided Fadnavis with a letter of support that stated all 54 of his party’s MLAs were with the BJP.
The President’s Rule can only be revoked after the Union cabinet recommends it to the President’s office and conducts a meeting for the same; however, Maharashtra’s case was different. The central government invoked Rule 12 of the Government of India (Transaction of Business) Rules, which allowed the Prime Minister a departure from these regular rules to cancel the President’s Rule. It is pertinent to mention that Rule 12 states that it can only be applied in a situation of urgency or exceptional circumstances.
Ergo, the Shiv Sena along with Congress and Nationalist Congress Party moved the Supreme Court against the Union government, Devendra Fadnavis, and Ajit Pawar for the power-grabbing circus that played out on November 23. The court normally does not hear cases on weekends, but considering the matter urgent, the MVA’s petition was heard on a Sunday. The apex court ordered the ‘Maharashtra government’ to conduct a floor test on November 27 to prove its majority without the secret-ballot method. It was also ordered that the whole process must be telecasted live for ensuring maximum transparency.
Interestingly, on November 26, before the SC-ordered floor test could be conducted, Ajit Pawar resigned as the Deputy Chief Minister forcing Devendra Fadnavis to step down from his chief ministership of a few days.
Thus, a month full of political turbulence culminated with Uddhav Thackeray’s Maha Vikas Aghadi securing 169 votes in the SC-ordered floor test on November 27.
The scion of the Thackeray family made his place in history by winning the Chief Minister’s post amid his participation in a maddening circle of political events. Until Ajit Pawar’s resignation, the interim Fadnavis-led government was hailed as a product of Amit Shah’s ‘Chanakyaneeti’ but Uddhav Thackeray’s collaboration with his traditional political rivals was the tipping point for his eventual victory.
Little did he envisage that only a few months after his dramatic win, he would be captaining the ship in the sea of the greatest human crisis in the form of COVID-19. As India’s toll inches towards the 1.5 million mark, the Uddhav Thackeray-governed Maharashtra is the worst-affected accounting for a fourth of the nation’s cases.