Mumbai: The Congress in Maharashtra came under attack from the Shiv Sena, its partner in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, through its mouthpiece Saamana Tuesday.
An editorial in Saamana minced no words in taking on the Congress, which has been openly airing its disgruntlement against the Uddhav Thackeray-led government. It used the metaphor of an “old cot” to describe its ally, and said “old cots creak too much and make a lot of noise”.
The editorial further said that while Thackeray was not power hungry and had not become the chief minister to gain power, the Congress was a “wily party which knows when to grumble and when to change sides”.
The Saamana editorial has made it public that the constituents of the MVA are at odds. The Shiv Sena had so far maintained silence on Congress ministers’ growing disgruntlement against the CM’s decisions, but showed that it felt the criticism was “unwarranted”.
However, Revenue Minister Balasaheb Thorat of the Congress reacted to the editorial by saying: “The chief minister is the head of the alliance and the government. When he hears us out, he too will be satisfied. Saamana should write another editorial; today’s piece is based on incomplete information which sends out a wrong message about us. We are with the MVA.”
Shiv Sena MP and Saamana Associate Editor Sanjay Raut also downplayed the editorial, saying it was the paper’s writing style.
“The coordination in the government is present, all the issues will be resolved after they meet the chief minister, such issues happen at times. Some Congress ministers, especially Ashok Chavan, have said that the officers do not listen to them, they will talk to the chief minister,” Raut was quoted as saying by ANI.
Thackeray-Pawar bonding and feeling of exclusion
The growing friendship between CM Uddhav Thackeray and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar has become worrisome for the Congress. The party’s ministers allege that they are neither taken into confidence nor consulted on important decisions; that these are discussed between Pawar and Thackeray and then simply announced.
Pawar has been proactive since the nation-wide Covid-19 lockdown began, and has held numerous meetings with Thackeray on the pandemic situation in the state, the havoc wreaked by the Nisarga cyclone, the agriculture crisis, the migrant crisis, exiting the lockdown, the non-availability of labour, and the impact of Covid on Maharashtra’s economy.
At these discussions, civil servants have been present, but the ministers heading the relevant departments are often absent, said government sources.
Former CM Ashok Chavan, now the public works minister, and Balasaheb Thorat, the revenue minister, have sought a meeting with Thackeray to discuss the issue of the party not being included in the decision-making process, but the CM is yet to fix a date.
Chavan and Thorat have been vocal about not being taken into confidence, with the former saying: “We are a three-party government. Each party should be accorded equal importance.”
Other Congress ministers like Nitin Raut, Vijay Wadettiwar and Sunil Kedar have also spoken about this, and even assembly Speaker Nana Patole had met the party’s former president Rahul Gandhi and updated him about the issues within the MVA.
“This is the ‘Thackeray sarkar’. The Congress is merely there to keep the numbers intact,” said a senior Congress leader.
Congress spokesperson Sachin Sawant added that the party is central to the survival of the state government. “When the Congress is important to hold this government together, it should be accorded equal importance in decision-making. Every minister of the party brings with him or her experience in governance,” Sawant told the ThePrint.
However, Shiv Sena’s Raut denied that the Congress ministers were angry. “Nobody is angry, all ministers stay present during cabinet meetings,” he said.
Chief secretary’s extension
Another reason for the Congress’ disgruntlement is the fact that Thackeray is granting a third service extension to Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta, who has been on extension since 31 March. Sources said Congress ministers were kept in the dark when this decision was taken, and that the party is opposed to another extension being given to Mehta, who is said to enjoy the confidence and trust of Thackeray.
The Congress is of the opinion that such service extensions cause a problem in the promotions of other senior civil servants who are in queue, such as Praveen Pardeshi, Sanjay Kumar and Sitaram Kunte.
Sources said Thackeray is in no mood to relent on this matter.
“Ajoy Mehta discusses issues of every department with the chief minister. Often presentations are made at cabinet meetings by the secretaries of the departments without the knowledge of the ministers,” a senior Congress minister told ThePrint.
“Since the chief secretary controls the bureaucrats, it is seen as an infringement of the minister’s rights. If the bureaucrats want to run the show, why does this government need ministers?”
Not working out for Congress
Political analyst Vishwambhar Chowdhari said it is becoming inconvenient for the Congress to remain in the government.
“The cost-benefit analysis is not working out for the Congress. When ideologies and working styles don’t match, this is bound to happen,” said Chowdhari.
There is also a feeling in the Congress that it is Pawar who is running the MVA government, an equation that has pushed his nephew and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar to the sidelines.
Although the three parties have stitched together a common minimum programme and set up two coordination committees, all this is only on paper, said sources.
In April, the early days of the pandemic in which Maharashtra has emerged as the worst-hit state, another former Congress CM Prithviraj Chavan brought the rumblings within the MVA into the public domain. “We are a part of this government but this is not our government,” he had told a TV news channel.
Then, in late May, Rahul Gandhi too had endorsed Prithviraj Chavan’s views, saying: “We are supporting the Maharashtra government but we are not in the decision-making role.”
Sources said the next day, Gandhi had called up Thackeray and had a lengthy conversation.
Then, in June, Maharashtra Energy Minister Nitin Raut had reiterated Gandhi’s words in a TV interview, after which Ashok Chavan and Thorat spoke about the issue.
“We will talk to the chief minister about the differences within the MVA. There are other issues too that need to be cleared,” Thorat had told news channels.