Pandemic politics

Political instability is the last thing Maharashtra needs at this stage. The state has about one-third of the Covid-19 cases in the country and the medical infrastructure in Mumbai is under severe pressure. This is the time when the government needs to focus on containing the pandemic instead of coalition partners looking at short-term political gains. But this is exactly what seems to be happening in India’s financial capital. Although Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has reportedly spoken to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray after making a rather controversial statement, all is clearly not well with the Maharashtra government. In a media interaction this week, Mr Gandhi said his party was supporting the government in Maharashtra but was not the key decision-maker. The statement was seen as the Congress disowning responsibility for what is happening in the state, even though the party is very much part of the cabinet. Mr Gandhi is not the only Congress leader to have sought to distance the party from the government. Former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan also recently said that the government was being run only by the Shiv Sena and not by the Maha Vikas Aghadi. Several others at the local level have taken the cue and have spoken out against Mr Thackeray’s administrative capabilities. Such political posturing will not help the people of Maharashtra at the moment. 

However, the Congress may not be the only threat to the stability of the government. Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the third partner in the ruling alliance, met Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, fuelling speculation that his party and the Shiv Sena disagreed on important administrative decisions and may be looking at other options. Expectedly, the Bharatiya Janata Party has sharpened its attack on the government for its handling of the pandemic and some of the leaders have demanded President’s rule. It is hard to understand the Congress’ game plan. If the government falls, the party would be a big loser as it will be out of power in another large state. As it is, the Congress has not been able to settle the central leadership issue for almost a year. It lost power in Madhya Pradesh because of infighting and the inability of the central leadership to amicably settle issues in the state unit. In Maharashtra, the party was visibly uncomfortable in joining the coalition government led by the Shiv Sena but, after taking the plunge, it must find a more sensible way of dealing with its partners.

Although it is correct that decision-making in the state has been dominated by the chief minister, coalition partners cannot deny responsibility for governance. The structure of the alliance is such that it does not have a dominant partner in terms of numbers and the friction only reflects lack of coordination. Therefore, Mr Thackeray would also do well to take the alliance partners together, especially in circumstances like these. Considering the fact that he lacks experience in running a government, it is even more important to work collectively. This will allow him to benefit from the experience of Mr Pawar of the NCP. The stakes are really high: Even a whiff of political instability at this stage will affect public confidence and worsen the situation on the ground.

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