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COVID-19 crisis and the making of a leader — Uddhav Thackeray

The COVID-19 catastrophe has extracted a horrific price from India and the serial nightmare continues with people gasping for oxygen and our dead piling up. However, the unspeakable tragedy has been the making of a real leader — Uddhav Thackeray, chief minister (CM) of Maharashtra and the chief of the Shiv Sena.

It took Thackeray six decades to emerge out of the shadow of his father — the charismatic rabble rouser Balasaheb Thackeray — who used to bring Mumbai to a halt with a single call. Thackeray senior and his Sena represented by a roaring tiger were always keen to demonstrate that “Balasaheb was the law” and they would follow no other.

Uddhav, a graduate from the prestigious J J school of Art, and an extremely talented photographer became the heir to the Thackeray legacy accidentally. His older brother Bindumadhav, who was supposed to be the political heir, died in an accident in 1996 leaving Bal Thackeray devastated. Thackeray then fell out with his middle son Jaidev who moved out of the family home — Matoshree.

Gentle in demeanour

The youngest son, a reluctant Uddhav was then drafted in the family business of politics. The rough and ready sainiks were nonplussed with Uddhav who was diffident, soft-spoken and self deprecatory — in comparison to his fire breathing father. They did not know what to make of a leader who was gentle in his demeanour.

Amit Shah and Narendra Modi also made the same mistake in their assessment of Uddhav Thackeray — as an ally thinking that he could be pushed around by the BJP and reduced to a junior partner. Thackeray struck with all the stealth of a tiger moving in for a kill and broke the “Maha Yuti” saffron alliance and catapulted himself in to the CM’s post.

It took decades but, finally Uddhav Thackeray has come in to his own. With Maharashtra and Mumbai specially being hot spots for COVID-19 infections, Thackeray — without any administrative experience — has done his best to fight the pandemic. Thackeray’s direct communication with the citizens of Maharashtra has been exemplary.

Grace and poise under pressure

Every time the state has locked down, Thackeray has done a public address to the state treating Maharashtra as an adult and not sugarcoating the emergency. He sounds calm and confident and ensures that panic does not strike the public. The transparent communication is in sharp contrast to the central government which has been extremely opaque in taking the citizens into confidence.

Thackeray is measured in his speech and does not make unrealistic promises of defeating COVID-19 as was claimed by Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Tackling a pandemic is a baptism by fire for any leader but, Thackeray also has to contend with the boundless ambition of BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis who is constantly trying to topple the MVA government. Amit Shah has still not forgiven Thackeray for his betrayal and losing the richest state in India to the opposition.

From the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, which was spun as a giant conspiracy that involved framing the state government’s ministers into central cases such as the case of the sacked Mumbai police commissioner Parambir Singh, the BJP has left no room for Thackeray to get comfortable and complacent.

Yet Thackeray has been cool and displayed grace under pressure by not responding to the BJP at all. Instead he focused on the bigger battle against COVID.

Thackeray is perhaps bringing the patience of his earlier avatar as a wild life photographer with a special interest in taking pictures of tigers. Thackeray would wait for hours in wild life parks like Bandhavgarh to shoot and capture the elusive animal. Thackeray has also done arieal photography of the forts of Maharashtra, spending hours in aircraft’s to get a perfect shot.

Politician with a difference

Thackeray’s leadership will be defined with how he tackles the pandemic eventually but most people used to bombastic big-talking Indian leaders are pleasantly surprised to have a politician who speaks softly.

I still remember two incidents of my own experience with this unlikely Thackeray. Once after giving me time for a TV interview he laughed when I asked where “Matoshree” was, telling me gently that most drivers in Mumbai would get me there.

Another time I had injured and broken a nail. Thackeray noticed and rushed up to his floor to get me a bandage. Something you don’t really expect from leaders in India who are permanently preoccupied with themselves.

Thackeray is a complete family man with his wife Rashmi who used to work for LIC and two sons Aditya Thackeray (a minister in Maharashtra cabinet) and Tejas — being his main advisers.

And, as we don’t seem to see an end to the COVID-19 catastrophe, with no mass vaccination in sight and a huge hit to the economy expected, Thackeray is trying to prepare his state for the worst.

At times leadership means promising less.