In his book, ‘36 Days: A Political Chronicle of Ambition, Trust, Deceit and Betrayal', author and journalist Kamlesh Sutar chronicles the political drama before and after the Maharashtra Assembly elections in 2019. This is an excerpt.

Quelling the BJP and a rebellion How Sharad Pawar wrested power in Maharashtra
news Book excerpt Saturday, June 06, 2020 - 13:44

This is an excerpt published with permission from author and journalist Kamlesh Sutar from his new book, 36 Days: A Political Chronicle of Ambition, Trust, Deceit and Betrayal. You can find the book here.

An early morning phone call woke up Uddhav Thackeray. What the caller informed him pulled the carpet from under his feet and left him shocked and speechless. 

As the state was sleeping, in an early morning development, Devendra Fadnavis was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Even more shocking was the name of the Deputy Chief Minister sworn in with Fadnavis. The man was none other than Ajit Pawar, who was sitting in front of him in the meeting the previous evening. At 8.01 am, ANI tweeted about Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar taking the oath. 

Sanjay Raut, who had recently undergone angioplasty, could feel his heart palpitating. It was he who had been coordinating with Sharad Pawar’s NCP. He had assured his Party President that the NCP will not ditch the Shiv Sena. And now here he was, trying to gather the courage to speak to Uddhav. Raut picked up the phone, but dialled Sharad Pawar instead. 

NCP’s State President Jayant Patil had retired to bed late the previous night after binge-watching his favourite series, Jack Ryan, on Amazon Prime. He woke up to a dozen missed calls on his phone, of which eight were from Uddhav Thackeray. 

The news was too big to believe. Even before anyone could confirm or deny the development, the biggest confirmation came in from none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who at 8.16 a.m. tweeted congratulations to the new Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra. 

The Shiv Sena and Congress camps were left devastated by the newsbreak, with both camps believing they had been backstabbed. For both of them, the man at the centre of suspicion was the same! 

6.30 a.m., Silver Oak Estate 

An early morning phone call woke up Sharad Pawar. It was an urgent call from a party MLA. The information given by the MLA left him shocked. He was informed that Ajit Pawar had been calling party MLAs since late last night and a few of them had gone with him to Raj Bhavan. ‘Dada is taking oath with (Devendra) Fadnavis,’ the MLA informed Pawar. Pawar looked at the watch, but it was too late to do anything. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stop the inevitable. All he knew was that he had to stop any further damage. 

Pawar started gathering information on who all had gone with Ajit. The previous night he had sensed that something was not right, as Ajit had disappeared suddenly after the meeting. Pawar now started to make calls to Ajit’s close aides. Dhananjay Munde, Ajit’s close confidante, had also gone incommunicado. 

By this time, the news of Ajit Pawar’s coup had spread like wildfire. The first thing Pawar had to do was to regain his allies’ trust. He immediately called Uddhav and informed him that he had nothing to do with Ajit’s move of going with the BJP. He also made a lightning call to Congress President Sonia Gandhi. 

A senior Congress leader, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, had already taken to Twitter to attack Sharad Pawar, saying, ‘Waah Pawar Sahab, Waah!!’ (This was deleted later.) Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar decided to meet urgently. Meanwhile, Pawar started gathering information on what had happened till now... 

11 p.m., 22 November 

The game had begun almost two weeks ago. Friday’s was the last nail. After excusing himself suddenly from the meeting at Nehru Centre, Ajit Pawar had come out and changed his car. Bhupendra Yadav and Ajit Pawar met at an undisclosed location to finalize the swearing-in. Ajit had already consented to join hands with the BJP a few days ago. Immediately after Pawar’s refusal to Narendra Modi, ‘Mission Ajit Pawar’ was expedited by the BJP. An NCP leader who was friends with a top state BJP leader had already tipped Fadnavis on how Ajit Pawar had once insisted on the possibility of thinking of BJP as an option in the initial days of the political logjam. The lines of communication with Ajit Pawar were opened from then and there. Bhupendra Yadav started working the deal with Ajit. During Ajit’s visit to Delhi, a meeting was also organized between him and Amit Shah to give Ajit the confidence that the BJP’s top leadership was closely involved in the developments. Ajit had since started to identify MLAs who would join him in the coup. It was not going to be an easy rebellion. After all, it was going to be against one of the most astute politicians. Add to it that Ajit was rebelling against his own uncle and mentor Sharad Pawar. Like the BJP, Ajit too had his Plan B. He knew that as the leader of the Legislative Party, he had all the powers to issue the letter of support. He was sure that a big chunk of party MLAs would follow him in his move. He started making phone calls. First on his dialler list was Sindkhed Raja (Buldhana district) MLA Rajendra Shingne. 

‘We have an important meeting tomorrow. Reach Dhananjay’s (Munde) Bungalow before 5 a.m. And since this is top secret, keep this to yourself,’ Ajit warned Shingne in his baritone voice. More such calls followed.

Raj Bhavan, Malabar Hill 

The BJP, meanwhile, had already made all preparations for the overnight takeover. Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari was scheduled to travel to Delhi for the two-day Governors’ Conference. He cancelled his trip, as he was informed about ‘an important development’. He was told late in the evening that he needed to stay back in Mumbai. Fadnavis communicated to the Raj Bhavan that he intended to stake claim to form the next government. After receiving the intimation, the first step for the Governor was to seek the letters of support. He had to follow the procedure or at least show that it was being followed. Ajit Pawar then submitted the requisite letter, extending support for the Fadnavis-led government. The next step according to the rule book was to recommend to the Centre to lift the President’s rule.

At around 12:30 a.m., Governor Koshyari sent a petition to the Centre for lifting the President’s Rule in Maharashtra. The Centre was more than quick in obliging. At an unusual time of 1:30 a.m., the Central Government gave its nod to the petition and without wasting any time, it was forwarded to President Ramnath Kovind. The President’s office acted on the petition without any delay. 

At 5.47 a.m. the President’s Rule in Maharashtra was revoked, paving the way for the swearing-in. The Governor’s Office by that time had already informed Chief Secretary of Maharashtra, Ajoy Mehta, to arrange the swearing-in at 6.30 a.m.

*

NCP MLAs started arriving at Dhananjay Munde’s residence. When Rajendra Shingne reached, he saw a few MLAs sitting there already. They were made to sit together in a vehicle. Majority of them were told by Ajit Pawar’s key aides that they had to reach Raj Bhavan. Some of them had started getting suspicious, but the key aide ferrying them whispered in Shingne’s ear that this move has the blessings of ‘Saheb’. Around 5.30 a.m., Ajit Pawar and Devendra Fadnavis had already arrived at the Raj Bhavan….

*

After the swearing-in, both Fadnavis and Pawar gave a small sound byte to the news agency. Ajit’s claim to join the BJP-led government was as bizzare as the late-night development. ‘After the results were announced [on] October 24, no party was able to form the government. Maharashtra was facing many problems, including farmers issues. So we have decided to form a stable government,’ Ajit said. 

Fadnavis’s reaction after the swearing-in is worth mentioning. ‘I extend my gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, BJP national president Amit Shah and working president J.P. Nadda for giving me the chance to serve Maharashtra as the Chief Minister again. People had given us a clear mandate, but Shiv Sena tried to ally with other parties after the results, after which President’s rule was imposed. Maharashtra needed a stable government, not a “khichdi” government. Ajit Pawar backed the BJP and with the support of Independent MLAs and smaller parties, we have formed the government in Maharashtra,’ Fadnavis told the news agency. Fadnavis’s statement was noteworthy for two reasons: In spite of calling it a coalition government, he didn’t mention Sharad Pawar in the list of gratitude. Secondly, the most striking thing that no one could miss was Fadnavis’s body language. Known for his supreme confidence, the very USP of Fadnavis was missing. His body language was clearly suggestive of reluctance. His tone and tenor suggested that he was not keen on the formation of this government. 

*

The Congress had slowly started to come to terms with the shock. The Party President Sonia Gandhi by now was sure that it was a rebel faction within the NCP and not the entire party that had let the Shiv Sena and Congress down. Pawar’s clarification and assurance to the Congress that the rebellion will be crushed was the much-required assurance. But in spite of that, the Congress had its own separate meeting, which was chaired by top leaders, including Ahmed Patel, Mallikarjun Kharge and K.C. Venugopal, along with state leaders.

‘The Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister were sworn in without any “band, baaja, baarat” in the wee hours... This event will be written in black ink in the country’s history,’ Ahmed Patel attacked. ‘There was blatant violation of constitutional principles that crossed all levels of shamelessness,’ he added. Patel announced that the Congress was still on board and will soon be formulating a joint strategy with the Shiv Sena and NCP to defeat the BJP in the confidence motion in the state assembly. 

The Congress had emerged as the smartest player in the game in the last one month, as its leaders had earlier foreseen the inevitable danger of poaching and moved its MLAs to a resort. The Shiv Sena, too, guarded its MLAs. The NCP was the only player in the game that was slightly negligent and it had ended up paying the price for it. The Congress yet again decided to move its MLAs to a hotel in Mumbai.

Y.B. Chavan Centre, Nariman Point, Mumbai, NCP Meeting 

Pawar’s war room in the mission was working at a lightning pace. Contact had been established with most of the rebel MLAs, including Ajit Pawar. Pawar was by now sure of the return of most of them. Some claimed being misguided and had returned. Some who had miscalculated, had by now realized what misadventure they were up to. Some who had spent reasonable time in the state’s politics knew well that challenging Sharad Pawar is no child’s play. The immediate effect of Pawar’s mission was seen on MLAs who were supposed to fly out of Mumbai. Some of them developed cold feet and decided to stay back in Mumbai. 

The rebel team was falling apart. 

At 3 p.m., sensing that the team of rebels had become weak at the knees, Pawar decided to open communication links directly with the Commander. Three in the party were assigned the most important task of the day to speak to Ajit Pawar, who was almost in hiding at his brother’s place—Ajit’s close friend in the party Sunil Tatkare and Sharad Pawar’s trusted lieutenants Dilip Walse-Patil and Hasan Mushrif. The brief given to the trio was simple—tell Ajit Pawar that everyone from his stable is on their way back. The party has decided that under no circumstances will it go with the BJP. On the day of the floor test, the party will stay together. It’s Ajit Pawar who will have to take his call now. The party doors were still open for him…

(This is an excerpt)

Kamlesh Sutar is a broadcast journalist based out of Mumbai. For over 19 years, Kamlesh has worked with leading TV channels like the national broadcaster Doordarshan, Times Now, and News X. Currently, he works with the TV Today network as a Deputy Editor, covering politics in Maharashtra and Goa.

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