ON MAY 20, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari called a meeting with Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to jointly review the government’s response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Thackeray, however, skipped the meeting and sent Shiv Sena secretary Milind Narvekar instead. Since the ministers, too, gave the meeting a miss, Koshyari was briefed by chief secretary Ajoy Mehta and other bureaucrats.
The absence reflected the widening rift between Koshyari and the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi government led by Thackeray. The Aghadi’s three main constituents—the Sena, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress—feel that the governor is showing too keen an interest in affairs of the state, and that Raj Bhavan is trying to trouble the government.
The rift was first seen barely a month after Thackeray took charge last November. Koshyari refused to accept the government’s decision to nominate Aditi Nalavade and Shivajirao Garje of the NCP to fill the governor’s quota of seats in the legislative council, saying the tenure of the seats would be over in six months.
Then, on April 7, the cabinet met in Thackeray’s absence and resolved that he be nominated to the legislative council through the governor’s quota. This provoked a question: How could the cabinet pass a resolution in the chief minister’s absence?
Since Uddhav had to become a legislator before May 27 to continue as chief minister, the full cabinet met two weeks later, passed the resolution again and sent it to the governor. But Koshyari sat on it, prompting several leaders to accuse him of playing politics.
A Congress leader, however, said Raj Bhavan was in a dilemma. “The governor was doing everything as per the Constitution,” said the leader. “He doubted whether it would be appropriate to nominate the chief minister through the governor’s quota. He strongly felt that a chief minister had to be elected, rather than nominated, to the legislature.”
The leader, however, said the governor went too far by calling a joint Covid-19 review meeting. “This was a way to send a message that the government is not handling the crisis well. Such meetings are normally held to build a case for imposing president’s rule,” said the leader.
Imprudent ministers have only aggravated the situation. Higher Education Minister Uday Samant recently recommended to the University Grants Commission that final-year university exams be cancelled because of the pandemic. Raj Bhavan took strong exception to Samant’s action, saying he had not discussed the matter with the governor, who is chancellor of all universities in the state. “Not conducting the final-year exams amounts to breach of UGC guidelines,” Koshyari wrote to Thackeray, terming Samant’s action as an “unwarranted intervention”.
Raj Bhavan also wants the government to consider it as a separate establishment, on the lines of the legislature and the judiciary. It wants to have complete control in appointing staff and managing funds. The government, however, has not accepted the demand.
A Sena leader close to Thackeray said the governor was bent on troubling the government. “Our leadership feels that Koshyari is making a case to impose president’s rule again,” said the leader. “He is building a case that the government is a failure. The BJP is trying to lure the NCP away. Koshyari is acting as per Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s instructions.”
There have been efforts for a truce. Sena MP Sanjay Raut, who had long been a vocal critic of the governor, went to Raj Bhavan on May 23 and bowed before Koshyari in greeting. Raut later told journalists that it was a courtesy call and that he bowed because Koshyari was his elder. “The relations between the governor and the chief minister are very cordial,” he said.
Two days later, NCP leaders Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel also met Koshyari. Pawar followed it up with an hourlong meeting with Thackeray and Raut. Later, Raut said the opposition’s efforts to destabilise the government would boomerang on them. “Our government will complete the five-year term,” he said.
BJP leader Narayan Rane, too, met the governor the same day and demanded that president’s rule be imposed. Opposition leader and former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, however, said the BJP did not want it. “Rane is a very senior leader. He does not like injustice, so he speaks his mind. The BJP is not at all interested in destabilising the government and playing politics when the state is fighting an epidemic. This government will fall because of its own inner conflicts,” said Fadnavis.
There are rumours that a storm is gathering in the ruling coalition. NCP leaders say Thackeray takes unilateral decisions and is overdependent on bureaucrats, especially chief secretary Mehta. The Congress leadership is reportedly unhappy about not being consulted on key issues.
When Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was asked about the Covid-19 situation in Maharashtra in a recent virtual media conference, he tried to distance the party from the government. “We are supporting the government in Maharashtra, but we are not decision-makers,” he said. “There is a difference between running a government and supporting one.”