The chief minister’s office on the sixth floor at Mantralaya, in South Mumbai, has no visitors sitting outside. In fact, there have been no visitors for a long time, since the Maha Vikas Aghadi government came to power two years ago. Knowing that there is no chief minister visiting the office, those who have work prefer to knock on the doors of deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar.
Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray has been missing from public life since November last year. In fact, he has not been a regular at Mantralaya like his predecessors did. He is more like a visitor to Mantralaya. Thackeray is recuperating after a cervical spine surgery he had last November. Coupled with the pandemic’s rapid spread in Maharashtra since nearly two years ago, the 62-years-old chief minister is ensconced at home attending to his duties virtually. He has eight drug eluted stents to remove the blockages from the three main arteries. Sources in the know of things say that Thackeray is still recovering from the spine surgery and is unable to sit at a stretch for long periods.
The unasked question in Mantralaya is whether the chief minister is fit enough to discharge his duties. There is also unverified talk in the political circles that his wife, Rashmi, may be made the chief minister as was in the case of Bihar’s former chief minister Rabri Devi. A tweet by Jiten Gajaria, the head of the BJP’s IT cell in the state referring to the chief minister’s wife as “Marathi Rabri Devi” sums up the political mood in the state.Despite the jibe the Shiv Sena has not reacted in their customary violent style. Instead, it is NCP leader Vidya Chavan who has taken the BJP on in full blast. Speaking to the media she said that the image of Rabri Devi is that of a family person.
She further stated that the BJP should not forget the antics of the wife of a former chief minister who was a “dancing doll”. Though, Chavan has not named the person, Amruta Fadnavis, the wife of former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has sent Chavan a defamation notice.Given this, the silence of the Shiv Sena is most surprising. This party, with a violent past, has chosen words over action to defend Rashmi Thackeray.
This is the moderation that Uddhav Thackeray has brought into the rank and file of the Shiv Sena since he took over as the party president on January 23, 2013. He is a man of well-planned action and has brought in many changes within the Shiv Sena. Had it been in the times of his father and Shiv Sena founder Balasaheb Thackeray’s era, the BJP’s office would have been vandalized for putting out a tweet about the chief minister’s wife. Not anymore.
The potshots by the BJP at the chief minister’s health and their demand that the chief minister’s charge should be given to a fit and capable person indicates that the opposition is definitely turning it into a political issue, said sources.
“The BJP sees the absence of the chief minister from public life as something that will grow into a leadership issue for the Shiv Sena. That is the reason they are pushing it,” said a senior minister of the Congress Party. On July 12, 2012 Uddhav Thackeray, who was then the executive president of the Shiv Sena had an angioplasty at the Lilavati Hospital in Bandra.
Three blockages were removed from his arteries. He had 100 per cent blockages in two of the three major arteries and 80 per cent blockage in the third one, said sources. “The blockages were severe and it was in the three main arteries. Eight drug eluted stents are embedded in the arteries to remove any constrictions that may occur,” said one of the doctors who formed the eight-member team who had operated on Thackeray way back then.
Though, advised an open-heart surgery, he chose to go with the low-risk angioplasty. The doctor mentioned that in some cases there have been a relapse in the condition.On 1 November, at a “Meet and Greet” programme for journalists at his official residence “Varsha”, Thackeray told the media that he had been experiencing pain in his legs due to cycling exercises. On November 9, Thackeray wore a cervical collar for an online meeting with the Prime Minister. In a statement released later, the chief minister stated that he needed to undergo a cervical spine surgery – an old injury which he had neglected and needed a surgery to rectify it which was done on November 12, last year. As he was in hospital, he had to give the remembrance service of his father, a miss on November 17.
On November 30, he attended the wedding of party Rajya Sabha MP and chief spokesman Sanjay Raut’s daughter, Piyushi, virtually through a video call. He was discharged from hospital on December 2 last year.Later, in the same month the venue of the Winter Session of the Maharashtra Legislature was changed from Nagpur to Mumbai as the chief minister was recuperating after the surgery. For years on end it is a tradition to hold the Winter Session is in Nagpur, which is considered as the second capital of the state.
So, there was a break in tradition to accommodate the chief minister’s health. Sources told Outlook that on December 17 last year, Thackeray visited Vidhan Bhavan in an attempt to check if he could sit through the Winter Session which was slated from December 22-28. However, he skipped attending the same. The functioning of the Legislature was handled by deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar. It is no secret that Ajit Pawar has been waiting in the wings for a very long time to take over as the chief minister. The workload has been tremendous since Thackeray took over as the chief minister on November 28, 2019.
Within months the Covid-19 pandemic hit Maharashtra hard elevating it to the list of top states to be affected. The pattern has continued with every Covid wave since. The Thackerays have always been part-time politicians, working out of Matoshree, their residence in suburban Bandra. They – Balasaheb and Uddhav Thackeray - were inaccessible not only to the public but also for the leaders of the Shiv Sena. Also, when these meetings took place in the past, the leaders had to leave their shoes and even socks behind. It was common knowledge in the Shiv Sena that heavy perfumes were unwelcome. During his days in the Shiv Sena, Raj Thackeray – the chief minister’s cousin – was accessible to the people but he always held a fragranced white handkerchief to his nose during the interactions. This is a habit he left behind when he established the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).
However, after Uddhav Thackeray took over the top job, the pandemic situation has ensured that physical meetings with party men have become a thing of the past. It is his elder son and political heir Aaditya, who is cruising from one physical meeting to another, sitting in on meetings of the various departments (even if the do not concern his ministry) and being the eyes, ears and voice of his father. Aaditya, the first Thackeray to have contested an election, is the minister for Environment and Forests in his father’s cabinet.
When Uddhav Thackeray entered mainstream politics and took charge of the top job, he traded a sedentary life for a stress-filled one. Balasaheb Thackeray too rarely left the confines of Matoshree, except on odd occasions. Due to the pandemic the chief minister has been working out of Matoshree. The BJP has been severely critical of Thackeray’s work-from-home stint. The joke in political circles is that the leader of the Opposition Devendra Fadnavis never sits at home, while the chief minister never leaves his home!Following severe criticism from his opponents, particularly the BJP, on the chief minister’s continued absence at Mantralaya - the headquarters of the state administration – Thackeray started venturing out since the middle of last year. However, as the first Covid wave, then Delta and now Omicron has seen an unbridled spread across Maharashtra, he has once again chosen to either operate out his official residence “Varsha” at Malabar Hill or his personal residence, relying more on virtual meetings rather than the physical ones.
However, his presence at Mantralaya since he became the chief minister two years ago, can be counted on the fingers of one hand, said sources. Interestingly, on days when ceremonial birth or death tributes have to be paid to those important to the state and nation, the photographs are brought from Mantralaya either to Matoshree or Varsha for him to garland and pay his respects. They are then taken back at the end of the day.The BJP has been keeping Thackeray on his toes by firing regular salvos at his administrative inexperience.
They have been aggressively critical of the MVA government’s decisions through a series of sporadic and planned protests across Maharashtra. These have become a consistent feature since the start of the first lockdown in the state. Additionally, the BJP has also made numerous trips to state Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari complaining about the MVA government.Out of comfort of the nearly 25-years old alliance with the BJP, he is now in the frontline where the spotlight is on him. He has to prove that his decision to become the chief minister is right and the pressure of the job is taking its toll on Thackeray’s health.
The BJP has started the rant that if Thackeray is not fit to handle the top job, he should hand over the charge to someone else in the Shiv Sena. “Despite the pressure, Uddhav Thackeray will not give up the CM’s post. He will hang on here and complete his tenure,” said a source. Aaditya is too junior to step into his father’s shoes and lead the MVA whose satraps include ex-chief minister and incumbent minister Ashok Chavan, senior ministers Subhash Desai, Eknath Shinde, Balasaheb Thorat, Ajit Pawar, Jayant Patil, Chhagan Bhujbal etc.
Presently, one of the most powerful Shiv Sena leaders in Thackeray’s cabinet is Eknath Shinde – the minister for Urban Development - who commands a strong hold over a sizable group of the party’s legislators. In the initial formation of the present government Shinde was touted as the chief ministerial candidate, but NCP chief Sharad Pawar overruled it saying that the tripartite alliance needed a known face. Sources say that Shinde has been sidelined in the cabinet so that he does not emerge as an alternate power centre.Besides, Thackeray does not want to commit the same mistakes as his father did by creating multi power centres within the party, which will hurt the future political prospects of his son.
When the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance came to power in Maharashtra in 1995, Balasaheb Thackeray handed over the chief minister’s job first to Manohar Joshi and later to Narayan Rane. While Joshi stayed within the framework of the Thackeray diktat, Rane started openly defying Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership.
“Uddhav lacks the charisma of his father and therefore remote controlling a chief minister will be very difficult. Therefore, letting Ajit Pawar handle the top job works in Uddhav’s favour,” said a senior Shiv Sena leader. A few days ago, Thackeray at a meeting of his partymen asked them to focus only on taking to the people the achievements of the MVA government. While asking them to concentrate on strengthening the party, the chief minister told party workers that he would give the opposition “a fitting reply at an appropriate time”.
“Uddhav Thackeray has got what he has due to the goodwill of his father Balasaheb Thackeray. He has never contested either a corporation, Assembly or Lok Sabha elections, so he does not know what elections are,” said Chandrakant Patil to the media. Patil is the Maharashtra president of the BJP.
The chief minister’s health is a concern to the MVA constituent parties as the elevation of Aaditya will lead to a leadership struggle within the Shiv Sena and voices of disgruntlement from within the MVA coalition.