Gandhis Made Their First Mistake With Ally Uddhav Thackeray

Uddhav Thackeray wore blazing saffron, invoked Shivaji and took the oath of office as Maharashtra chief minister at Shivaji Park where his father had virtually created the Shiv Sena from scratch.

Thackeray's oath was watched over by a stellar cast of heavyweights. Alliance partners included NCP's Sharad Pawar, who - and it cannot be emphasised enough - now holds the "remote control" of power in Mumbai, his daughter Supriya Sule and frenemy nephew Ajit Pawar, who came back for a family reunion after a brief dalliance with the BJP.

Estranged cousin Raj Thackeray also got a place in yet another Bollywood-style family reunion. On stage, the Congress contingent of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath, Ahmed Patel and Kapil Sibal were present.

Making their absence felt despite the alliance were Sonia Gandhi, interim Congress president, and her son Rahul Gandhi, former Congress president.

Thackeray had made a special outreach to Sonia Gandhi, sending son Aaditya Thackeray on Wednesday with a personal invite. Uncertainty prevailed all day on whether the Gandhis would go. Finally, they sent congratulatory letters. Senior Sena leaders told me that Thackeray, who had also made a personal point of thanking Sonia Gandhi publicly, wanted her to be present as a show of support for his newbie government and to establish lines of communication with this new and unlikely ally in office.


Uddhav Thackeray took oath of office in Mumbai today.

Senior Congress leaders confirmed that Pawar had also advised Gandhi to attend the ceremony and send the message that the alliance was stable. Apparently, Gandhi was torn as son Rahul, who was never enthusiastic about the alliance, had a sort of veto on his mother attending the event.

This, in a nutshell, is the fundamental problem that will dog this complicated alliance, with the BJP, bruised by its abrupt ejection from power in India's richest state, ready to swoop in and end the fledgling government.

This could be a repeat of the Karnataka story, with the Congress and its unlikely ally forced out of office.

The Congress appears to have learnt no lessons from Karnataka. Even as the Devendra Fadnavis government was sworn in for a brief 80 hours last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had no qualms about throwing his weight behind it. Modi tweeted his support within minutes of the early morning swearing-in last Saturday.

The Gandhis' squeamish behaviour of trying to keep an arm's length from the Sena-led alliance government makes no sense. A senior NCP leader said, "The Congress has lucked out by being in government. Either they take full ownership or it will destabilise the government from the get go. This sort of absentee ownership makes no sense."


Shiv Sena leader Aaditya Thackeray invited Sonia Gandhi for Uddhav Thackeray's oath ceremony

The Gandhis kept away despite a common minimum programme which stressed on the word secular in its preamble. Sources close to Uddhav Thackeray told me that it had been his idea to express gratitude to Sonia Gandhi, as his mother Meentai Thackeray had been an icon for the Sena cadre, and his wife Rashmi Thackeray was an extremely astute political advisor to him. Thackeray was slightly disappointed, but was still hoping to establish a working relationship with the Congress chief.

The other big takeaway was the lack of a job for Pawar's renegade nephew Ajit Pawar. Speculation had ranged from deputy Chief Minister to speaker but "Dada" -- as he is called -- was a sheepish presence on stage. Thackeray has apparently prevailed on Pawar senior not to give a plum post to his runaway nephew just yet.

The Thackeray mini-cabinet, which took oath with him, followed expected lines. The Sena contingent was led by Eknath Shinde, who had been active during the tense days of corralling MLAs from the BJP's "Operation Lotus", and Subash Desai, long-time Thackeray family loyalist. The NCP's Jayant Patil and Chhagan Bhujbal (former Shiv Sena), and Balasaheb Thorat and Nitin Raut of the Congress were also sworn in.

Waiting in the wings are Congress leaders like former Chief Ministers Ashok Chavan -- who had an expected knock on the door from the Enforcement Directorate yesterday over the controversial Adarsh building scam -- and Prithviraj Chavan.

The Thackeray government is founded on an anti-BJP and anti-Modi-Shah feeling as the BJP becomes the central pole of politics in India. The test of this spirit will lie in the delivery and cohesion of the Thackeray-led government. If he falters, the BJP will do everything to nudge the government towards collapse. A Sena leader was candid, saying, "Our government will last as long as Pawar wants. He will also be Thackeray's guide." Thackeray, a graduate of the JJ school of Art, has no administrative experience and will take guidance from the multiple-term Chief Minister Pawar.

While the NCP is hoping to rebuild itself, the Congress is the cause for concern. It needs to walk the talk with the Thackeray government and throw all its political heft behind Thackeray. That is big ask from the currently crisis-ridden Congress.

But, as a Sena MP smirked, "Uddhav Thackeray is also a legacy politician who has finally fulfilled his father's dream. Rahul-ji should look at him and find hope that one day, he will also fulfill his mother's dreams."

Ah well. Allies can be cruel.

(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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