Uddhav’s Cabinet: Can ‘Family-Run’ Alliance Survive BJP’s ‘Traps’?

Will Uddhav Thackeray manage to keep his newly-formed govt from falling into Fadnavis & BJP’s ‘traps’?

Published
Opinion
7 min read
Image of Uddhav Thackeray used for representational purposes.
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Snapshot
  • Tussles between the three allies and within each party have begun about portfolio allocation. Each party will now have to do jugglery to divide the allocated portfolios amongst its ministers in the cabinet.
  • Content to be the ‘remote control’ all these years, the Thackeray family appears to have decided that an assertive and direct control of power is the way ahead.
  • The focus on family has irked a number of veterans and loyalists who kept the party’s flag flying high during the BJP’s onslaught. Aaditya’s inclusion deprived one of them of a seat at Maharashtra’s high table.
  • The Congress, like the Sena and NCP, faces internal agitation given the number of hopeful MLAs left out of the cabinet.

More than two months after the Maharashtra assembly election, and a month after Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray was sworn in as chief minister, the state finally got its full-fledged government on Monday. However, the 43-member cabinet of the Maha Vikas Aghadi – an awkward alliance of Sena, Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party – looks less like a democratically elected new-age government and more an enterprise of politically powerful and entrenched families, raising questions about Thackeray’s vision and savoir faire.

Two developments best illustrate this. Thackeray’s son and first-time legislator Aaditya was sworn in as a minister, taking many even in the Sena by surprise; veterans like Diwakar Raote and Ramdas Kadam were left out, as were younger and powerful local leaders who had taken on the party’s erstwhile ally, the BJP. Ajit Pawar, who had rebelled against his uncle and NCP chief Sharad Pawar last month, to lend support to a briefly-lived Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government, took oath as deputy chief minister — it was a signal that his rebellion, far from alienating him, had brought him handsome dividends and increased his clout within the party.

A ‘Family-Run’ Alliance – Jugglery in Portfolio Allocation Is Inevitable

Nearly half of the cabinet – 20 out of 43 including the chief minister – are sons, daughters and nephews of senior state politicians, demonstrating once again that politics is a family venture where one generation takes over from another. And that, though all are equal in a party, sons-nephews-daughters are first among equals. These are regionally significant families which control local economies including the cooperative sector units in sugar, dairy and finance. The Patils, Deshmukhs, Pawars, Mundes, Thakurs, Gaikwads and, of course, Thackerays are all there.

In the 43-member cabinet, the Sena has 15, the NCP has 16, and the Congress 12. Individual portfolios are yet to be announced, but the division is such that the NCP has most of the plum portfolios in its bag including home, finance and planning, housing and water resources. The Congress has revenue and public works department.

Tussles between the three allies and within each party have begun about portfolio allocation.

Each party will now have to do jugglery to divide the allocated portfolios amongst its ministers in the cabinet; miffed supporters of Congress MLAs attacked the party office in Pune on Tuesday. Bringing some semblance of cohesiveness and stability to the government, balancing egos and rivals in the alliance will be Thackeray’s key challenge in the weeks ahead.

Not Enough Women in Cabinet; Shift in the Thackeray Approach to Power

This Cabinet has only three women in the council of ministers – all daughters of veteran politicians. Congress’s Varsha Gaikwad and Yashomati Thakur, and NCP’s Aditi Tatkare, have been groomed by their fathers to take over their political legacies. The three women and, hearteningly, nine men who took oath on Monday, chose to include their mothers’ names alongside those of their fathers. So, Aaditya went, “I, Aaditya Rashmi Uddhav Thackeray…” It was a small but meaningful gesture – including more women in the cabinet would have been more eloquent though.

The Thackeray father-son in cabinet is a first for Maharashtra, though other states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, and Punjab have had such a combination.

The late Bal Thackeray had spent the latter half of his political life viciously criticising and mocking the Gandhis – Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul – though he admired Indira Gandhi – at every opportunity for turning the Congress into a ‘family enterprise’ run on ‘dynastic’ principles. The critique has come a full circle. How might he have explained away the Thackeray dynasty in party as well as government?

This also signals a fundamental shift in the Thackerays’ approach to power. Content to be the ‘remote control’ all these years, the family appears to have decided that an assertive and direct control of power is the way ahead. Uddhav and his wife Rashmi – the ambitious and focussed back-seat driver of the family’s fortunes – have learned from Rahul Gandhi’s journey in the Congress, where staying away from ministerial responsibility eventually turned out to be his political handicap.

Family Matters: Ajit Pawar’s Redemption & Reinstatement

The focus on family has irked a number of veterans and loyalists who kept the party’s flag flying high during the BJP’s onslaught. Aaditya’s inclusion deprived one of them of a seat at Maharashtra’s high table. Among these is Sanjay Raut who literally engineered the Sena out of its alliance with the BJP and helped foster the Maha Vikas Aghadi; his brother Sunil, a Mumbai MLA, was expected to be in the cabinet. Managing the ambitions of Sena leaders and soothing ruffled feathers are also challenges that Thackeray faces in the coming weeks.

The family drama played out in the NCP too. With Ajit Pawar and his loyalists like Dhananjay Munde, nephew of the late Gopinath Munde (BJP), and Sunil Tatkare’s daughter Aditi in the cabinet among others, the dynastic principle was at work.

Equally, it was clear that Ajit Pawar’s transgression of last month was not only forgiven, but he had also received redemption. He and his loyalists were well accommodated – to the annoyance of others who had stayed firm with the party.

For Ajit Pawar, this round of slugfest has been beneficial – he surprised and then checkmated the veteran Sharad Pawar, known to have the sharpest political brain this side of the Vindhyas. He demonstrated that his place in the NCP continues to be first among equals, leaving more principled colleagues like Dilip Walse Patil and Jayant Patil back, he emerged free of some corruption cases in the multi-crore irrigation scam between his two oaths as deputy chief minister, and he has taken away the BJP’s master card of corruption in a way that BJP leaders will not be able to target him in the future. Ajit Pawar is, as the saying goes, the ‘bad boy’ in the class who topped the score card by means fair and foul.

Congress Faces Internal Agitation

Sharad Pawar may not be happy about the turn of events in the last five weeks but, given his new predilection for keeping the family and party united, he is likely to ignore Ajit re-drawing boundaries to cement his position as the successor. The Pawar family saga turned more complex, but Ajit Pawar is sitting smug within the party and the government.

The Sena-led government bears the ‘Congress-NCP stamp’: four of the council of ministers are Muslims. Besides its MLA Abdul Sattar, Thackeray inducted Nawab Malik (NCP), Hasan Mushrif (NCP), and Aslam Shaikh (Congress) into the cabinet. Shaikh, three-time MLA from a Mumbai suburb, had written a letter to the President of India asking for clemency for the 1993 serial blasts convict Yakub Memon, when the Sena was demanding that he be hanged. There are compulsions of a coalition, a Sena veteran justified.

The Congress, like the other two parties, faces internal agitation given the number of hopeful MLAs left out of the cabinet.

Ashok Chavan, former chief minister, was inducted as was Amit Deshmukh (the late Vilasrao Deshmukh’s son) and Vishwajeet Kadam (Patangaro Kadam’s son). But former CM Prithivraj Chavan was not. Chavan’s exclusion has raised eyebrows all around, given his experience, stature and unsullied image, but he preferred to not break his silence. Chavan and Sharad Pawar share a frosty relationship.

Challenges for Uddhav: Allies Must be Wooed; ‘BJP Trap’ to be Avoided

How the Congress behaves in the weeks ahead will determine the stability of Thackeray’s government; Uddhav still does not share a personal rapport with Sonia Gandhi while Rahul Gandhi has made his antipathy to the Sena-led alliance known. Getting the Gandhis to fully back the alliance will remain a box to be ticked for Thackeray. In the government formation, the smaller allies supporting the Maha Vikas Aghadi, like Swabhimani Shetkari Paksh (SSP) and Samajwadi Party, are miffed at being marginalised. SSP leader Raju Shetti said: “When they wanted to demonstrate strength to the BJP, they had offered to send me a helicopter. Now that the government is in place I was not even properly invited for the oath ceremony”. Taking all allies along remains another challenge for Thackeray.

A sore Fadnavis – and BJP – are waiting in the wings to trip up the Sena-led government; negotiating through the traps will be a test for this government.

But the bigger test for Thackeray will be his decision-making ability especially in the context of loan relief/waiver offered to heavily-indebted farmers, and continuing the pace of ongoing infrastructure work in cities. Eventually, Uddhav Thackeray’s tenure will be evaluated for governance, not merely its ability to survive, though he does not enjoy the mandate, freedom and room to manoeuvre that his predecessor did. But that evaluation must wait a while.

(Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, editor and chronicler. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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