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Nearly His Own Man

A gripping, behind-the scenes account of political machination and high intrigue. The objective: power in Maharashtra

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Nearly His Own Man
Sharad Pawar with Uddhav Thackeray. As Ajit’s coup became known, the older Pawar reached out to Uddhav.
Photograph by PTI
Nearly His Own Man
outlookindia.com
2020-05-30T13:18:24+0530
36 Days: A Political Chronicle Of Ambition, Deception, Trust And Betrayal
By Kamlesh Sutar
Rupa Books

DAY 31: SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 2019

8.00 a.m., Matoshri

An early morning phone call woke up Uddhav Thackeray. What the caller informed him pulled the rug 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 mMinister 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 a.m., 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. (1)* 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.

Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar taking oath.

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 confidant, 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 pm, November 22

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 finalise 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 organised 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. (2)* “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.

Uddhav with Amit Shah.

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 am, 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. 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.

***

A team from ANI had got a message late last night that Devendra Fadnavis would be giving a sound byte early next morning. In the last few years, this had become a norm. Whenever Fadnavis wanted to issue a statement, he preferred speaking to the ANI. For the ANI team, this was a routine assignment till they reached Varsha, where Fadnavis was still staying. The TV crew with their live source was ferried to Raj Bhavan. When they entered the governor’s office with their cameras, they were stunned to see Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar together. Just as they were gathering their thoughts, the national anthem started playing with the governor’s arrival. Permission was sought to start the proceedings.

At 7.45 a.m., the governor began the swearing-in ceremony. The first name that was called was of Shri Devendra Gangadharrao Fadnavis.

‘Mee Devendra Gangadharrao Fadnavis, ishwar saksh shapath gheto ki.…,’ Fadnavis started his oath as the CM. After he completed his oath, the second name was called out—Shri Ajit Anantrao Pawar. ‘Mee Ajit Anantrao Pawar, gambhirya purvak drudh kathan karto ki....’ NCP MLAs, who till now had any doubt left in their minds, now got a clear idea what they were part of. It was a coup!


*(1 + 2) Source-based information on condition of anonymity

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