Is Pawar, not Uddhav, Running Maharashtra?

The perception is rapidly gaining ground that though the chief minister is from the Shiv Sena, the government is being run by the NCP.

For the past 10 years, Maharashtra has not seen any significant power outage. When, amid a heatwave, fans stopped whirring recently and most of Mumbai went dark for several hours, it seemed that no contingency plan was in place.

Maharashtra’s power demand has increased to over 28,000 megawatt (Mw) and is expected to cross 30,000 Mw. Ministers acknowledge hydel power is not an option as rivers are running dry. There is a shortage of coal. The rains are still some weeks away. How is Maharashtra going to cope?

For the state government, managing the power situation is its priority. But the political challenges it has to negotiate are bigger: The BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation elections and handling former alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party and current alliance partners which are members of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi coalition, especially the Nationalist Congress Party.

For the moment, the BMC elections are collateral damage in a legal tussle over 27 per cent other backward classes reservation in all local bodies, whether zilla parishads or panchayat samitis or municipalities. The five-year term of elected BMC corporators ended on March 7 this year.

In its verdict dated March 4, 2021, the Supreme Court struck down the 27 per cent OBC reservation in local bodies in Maharashtra, on the grounds that there was no empirical data to justify the reservation. This extended to the BMC.

The state government tried to circumvent this by passing a resolution in the assembly that if there was no OBC reservation, there will be no local body election. It then tried moving an ordinance. The apex court stayed the ordinance.

On March 3 this year, the Supreme Court refused to accept the interim report of the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission recommending 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in local bodies on the grounds that it was prepared without empirical study.

At the moment, the richest municipal body in the world is being run by an administrator — the first time since 1984. BJP leader Chandrakant Patil has said that he anticipates the BMC elections in October.

Whenever they are held, this will be the first time that the Shiv Sena and the BJP will contest independently of each other. For Sena, this is a prestige election. If any warning was needed, in a highly combative speech last week — among his few public speeches after he went through spinal surgery — Uddhav Thackeray made it clear he would take the BJP head-on.

The BJP noted with disapproval, his absence from an award ceremony where Prime Minister Narendra Modi was present. The Lata Deenanath Mangeshkar prize went to Modi, but the chief minister’s name was missing from the invitation, so he did not go: Though the Sena and Bal Thackeray always had a special place in Lata Mangeshkar’s heart.

But it is not just political adversaries that Thackeray should be worrying about. The perception is rapidly gaining ground that though the chief minister is from the Shiv Sena, the government is being run by the NCP.

The home, finance, and rural development portfolios are with the NCP. These three are absolutely crucial for any state government, especially rural development, which is a way of exercising control over the zilla parishads.

Housing and public health, too, are with the NCP. Ajit Pawar has the experience and the reach, and is an active politician.

“Compared to Uddhav Thackeray, he is more hands-on,” says a retired IAS officer who has served in Maharashtra.

The result is that it is easier for NCP MLAs to get things “done” via Ajit Pawar, while Sena MLAs have to struggle.

It is not just the BJP which is making this allegation — Sena MLA and former minister Tanaji Sawant said at a public meeting in Solapur in March that the Sena was getting ‘secondary’ treatment from a government in which the NCP was a partner only because of Thackeray.

Sawant said in the Budget for 2022-2023, which was presented by Ajit Pawar on March 11, departments headed by the NCP got 57 per cent to 60 per cent of total allocations, while those headed by Congress ministers got a 30-35 per cent share.

‘The higher and technical education portfolio is with Shiv Sena. Of the 16 per cent allocation (for the Sena-led department), 6 per cent is spent on salaries. What about the allocation for development?’ the MLA asked.

Sawant said he routinely gets calls from local Sena leaders from various districts in which they say even a gram panchayat member who is from the NCP manages to get project work worth over Rs 1 crore (rs 10 million) sanctioned under a particular scheme since the rural development department is headed by NCP Minister Hasan Mushrif.

‘We will not tolerate this (alleged injustice). We are just waiting for orders (from Uddhav Thackeray). Do not test our patience. We are silent only until the time we get aadesh (orders) from saheb (Thackeray),’ Sawant said.

As a result, there are several areas where the NCP and the Sena are going to head to head, especially at the municipal level. Whether it is Thane or Palghar, or even Aurangabad, clashes between Sena and NCP workers are rising.

With these and other pressures, will the MVA government be able to complete its term?

Many retired bureaucrats are watching Sharad Pawar’s moves carefully as Presidential elections draw near.

A retired Union government secretary from the Maharashtra cadre said: “For a person of Pawar’s stature and calibre, the job of the President of India is not enough of an intellectual challenge. But he knows he can leverage his party’s support in that election to enable regime change in Maharashtra. The question is: What is in it for him and his party?”

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