NAGPUR, Maharashtra: As the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government races to control the coronavirus pandemic, it is also dealing with sharp political attacks from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has sensed an opportunity to undermine the ruling coalition.
Maharashtra has India’s largest tally of COVID-19 cases, with over 5,200 people infected and 251 deaths. Its capital city Mumbai, the financial center of the country, is a hotspot for the virus, reporting more than 3,000 cases and 100 deaths.
While the Thackeray administration’s handling of the pandemic so far has drawn mostly praise, it has been on the backfoot politically for the past few weeks. Even before the embarrassment caused due to the special treatment provided to the controversial Wadhwan family had died down, it had to race to control a potential communal flare-up after three men—two Hindu sadhus and their driver—were lynched by a mob in Palghar district that allegedly suspected them to be child-kidnappers and organ harvesters. At the same time, the Shiv Sena is also closely watching the BJP’s meetings with state governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, who is yet to nominate Thackeray to the upper house of the Maharashtra legislature almost two weeks after the state cabinet recommended it.
The Palghar fallout
The gruesome incident immediately got many right-wing Internet users busy in falsely manufacturing a communal angle to the crime—despite both the attackers and victims being Hindus. This included members of the BJP’s media cell, Alt News reported.
For possibly the first time in its political history, the Shiv Sena swung into action to disprove any communal angle to the case, to ensure that the incident wasn’t used to worsen attacks against Muslims. On Wednesday, home minister Anil Deshmukh released the list of 101 people arrested for the murder, pointing out firmly that none of them were Muslims.
“It could not have happened at a worse time than this. But we have always been aggressive on every issue. We will aggressively counter this also but it’s sad to see the BJP taking advantage of the situation at a time of crisis,” a Shiv Sena leader from Mumbai told HuffPost India on condition of anonymity.
The fact that Shiv Sena did not take the criticism on the Palghar incident lightly was made obvious when Thackery dedicated his entire public briefing on Monday to the incident.
He promised that no perpetrator would be spared and warned offenders against spreading lies on social media.
Senior journalist Dhaval Kulkarni, who has written a book on the Thackerays, said that the Palghar incident epitomizes the peculiar predicament the Shiv Sena, a former BJP ally, finds itself in.
“Shiv Sena, a proponent of Hindutva, is in power now and the other Hindutva party, BJP, is in opposition now. So there is a race to prove loyalty to Hindutva. BJP is definitely going to try and corner Shiv Sena, now and in future also, using incidents like Palghar. But it also shows how Shiv Sena is walking a tightrope. You cannot compromise on your core issue but at the same time you can not also run away from your responsibility of being the ruler. This is a predicament faced by Shiv Sena and BJP is trying to utilize it. But it’s clear that there was no communal angle to the Palghar incident,” he said.
Eyes on the governor
Thackeray may also face a political crisis soon unless governor Koshiyari, a former RSS and BJP member, nominates him soon to the Maharashtra legislative council.
HuffPost India had reported earlier this month how the postponement of the legislative council elections which were due this month could mean trouble for the Shiv Sena.
When Thackeray took oath as the chief minister of Maharashtra on 28 November last year, he was not a member of any House of the Maharashtra legislature. According to India’s Constitution, a minister or chief minister of any state must be a member of the state’s legislative council or assembly. If he or she is not a member of either at the time of swearing-in, they have six months to get elected or resign from the post.
Thackeray’s six months will be up on 28 May.
While it’s unlikely that the elections can be conducted on time—given the Election Commission needs at least three weeks to make preparations—a Shiv Sena leader had said then that they could also ask the governor to nominate Thackeray to the upper House.
The state cabinet recommended this to the governor on April 9, but it is yet to happen.
A BJP worker, Ramkrishna Pillay, even moved the Bombay High Court challenging the cabinet’s move. For now, the court has refused to entertain Pilllay’s petition, which had contended that the state cabinet’s move to propose Thackeray’s name for the MLC seat was illegal since the meeting was not chaired by the CM.
If Koshiyari does not nominate Thackeray to the state council, the Shiv Sena leader will have to resign and take the oath again on May 28. This will require the entire cabinet to resign and take oath again at a time when the state cannot afford any distractions.
On Tuesday, BJP leader and former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis again met the governor.
Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut has already said that the governor’s house should not become the center of a political conspiracy.
The BJP was quick to react to it.
“I heard some experts talking something while looking towards the Raj Bhavan. What was it? We did not give the name earlier (For MLC nomination). We forgot about the Yavatmal by-election (for MLC seat). Is this what you want to say. Why do you want to pressurize the governor now?” BJP leader Ashish Shelar tweeted in response to Raut’s tweet.
Even as Maharashtra’s coronavirus crisis rages on, political observers are currently watching to see how the political battle ends.