Corona and the accidental chief minister

Delhi was expected to do better than Mumbai in handling the pandemic; it has a popular CM in Arvind Kejriwal, model mohalla clinics and the vast resources of a national capital, whereas Mumbai has an accidental CM in Uddhav Thackeray, it is unbelievably crowded and filthy and the capital of a state starved of funds by the Centre.

Initially, Mumbai lagged far behind Delhi. Yet, in a re-run of the hare and tortoise race, Mumbai has overtaken Delhi. On November 19, the number of active cases in Delhi stood at 43,221 whereas the figure for Mumbai was 11,694.

Maharashtra, which accounted for a quarter of the corona cases and half the deaths at beginning, has managed to bring its caseload down and is the only one in the top-five worst-hit states where the number of active cases is going down.

Part of the credit for this goes to Uddhav Thackeray, who completes one year as CM today. He has been a revelation. Here’s a man whose interest lay in photography rather than in politics, who had no administrative experience and who has eight stents in his heart.

The wonder is how Uddhav has managed to use his handicaps to his advantage. To begin with, he lacked first-hand knowledge of how the bureaucracy functions, having never held a public post. The bureaucracy is a bull that bucks its riders; Uddhav’s predecessor Devendra Fadnavis fulminated against babus till the end of his term.

To everyone’s surprise, Uddhav decided to continue with Ajoy Mehta, chief secretary under Fadnavis, now the leader of the opposition. Uddhav gave Mehta a free hand. When Pravin Pardeshi, who wasn’t doing a bad job as Mumbai municipal commissioner, clashed with Mehta, he was replaced. Uddhav got it right; in any war, there can be only one general and this is a war against Covid.

The Uddhav-Mehta duo acted decisively; enforcing a strict lockdown, going to the extent of impounding cars, marking out containment zones and most importantly, systematically gathering reliable data. Senior civic officials were assigned tasks and the slackers were shunted out.

Uddhav’s alliance partners in the Maha Vikas Aghadi accused Mehta of acting as the super CM, but to no avail. Not that the duo made no mistakes but they were rectified quickly. The one-general policy has paid off. One of the early successes was the containment of Covid in Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum.

This is not to say that Uddhav does not step in when he realises that things are going wrong. Responding to widespread complaints about the indiscriminate use of force by cops, he told them to use their lathis judiciously.

It is easy for a new and beleaguered CM to give in to the temptation of populism. To his credit, Uddhav resisted it. Schools, malls, cinema halls and eateries remained shut; even roadside vadapav stalls were not permitted despite a nudge by Sena leader Sanjay Raut. "I am not Trump," Uddhav told him.

Unlike Delhi’s metro which resumed in September, local trains in Mumbai, were carrying only those running essential services when they resumed in June. Buses too, only ferried essential service providers throughout the lockdown while the intra-state services resumed in August.

Delhi opened temples, mosques, etc in June but Mumbai held on till November despite jibes by the BJP. Maharashtra Governor B G Koshyari even twisted the knife, wondering aloud whether Uddhav had turned `secular’.

Given the Shiv Sena’s past and its role in the post-Babri communal riots, Uddhav went out of his way to reassure Muslims; the guardian minister of Mumbai is Aslam Shaikh of the Congress. The community reciprocated, by heeding the CM’s call not to allow congregations in mosques.

In fact, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna carried an editorial questioning the utility of shrines in a pandemic. However, Uddhav’s cousin Raj Thackeray, whose Maharashtra Navnirman Sena won just one seat in the last assembly polls, sought to stoke the anti-Muslim sentiment during the Tablighi Jamaat episode.

Here too, Uddhav stepped in to curb hate messages. By April, 196 cases had been registered across the state against fake news, rumours and hate speech, with 37 arrests, including that of a man who threatened a state cabinet minister with the fate of Narendra Dabholkar.

Uddhav makes up for his lack of charisma by his earnestness. No jumlas like Modi, no rhetoric like his late father Bal Thackeray, he believes in plainspeak. The CM neither hypes nor hides anything in his daily briefings, stating the facts with figures; the number of patients, number of deaths, hotspot areas, preparedness on the part of the government in terms of the number of hospitals and hospital beds, etc.

Even experts agree that Mumbai, unlike Delhi, routinely puts out all its Covid-related data for the world to see. The daily bulletins issued by the BMC run into multiple pages, offering granular data, while those of Delhi are one-pagers.

Citizens have appreciated Uddhav’s sincerity, frankness, inclusivity, firmness and an unbiased approach in the fight against Covid. He has also avoided a blame game with the Centre or a slanging match with Fadnavis. The Dhoni-like `keep calm and carry on’ approach is paying dividends.

Such is the faith in his word that people with symptoms opt to go to one of the jumbo facilities set up by the government, instead of rushing to private hospitals. Ganeshotsav, Navratri and Diwali were remarkably low-key although festival-shopping crowds at Dadar were alarming.

All the while, Uddhav Thackeray has been working from home but behind the scenes, the man who has made life easy for him is the wily NCP leader Sharad Pawar. Thanks to him, the three-party alliance has remained free of friction and Deputy CM Ajit Pawar has uncharacteristically kept a low profile.

The MVA responded to the BJP’s oft-repeated threat to topple it by engineering the defection of senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse. Instead of Operation Kamal, Maharashtra witnessed Operation Khadse. Thus Uddhav’s challenge to Fadnavis at his party’s annual Dussehra rally: Don’t just talk about it, do it.

However, the threat is real. There is growing resentment in the Shiv Sena about Uddhav’s coterie and the way his son Aaditya is being foisted on the party. Satraps such as Eknath Shinde and Diwakar Raote, who enjoy the support of a sizable section of the MLAs, feel sidelined and could be lured away from the Shiv Sena.

Politics is like a T20 game of cricket these days. It can change any moment. Uddhav has hit a slew of boundaries in the first six overs where only two fielders are allowed outside the inner circle but his strike rate is bound to dip when the field spreads out.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.

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