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80 Hours That Shook Maharashtra: How Sena-NCP-Cong Outwitted BJP 

Blow-by-blow account of the 80-hour battle of wits between BJP-Ajit Pawar and Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress.

Updated
Politics
5 min read
From left to right: Shiv Sena Chief Uddhav Thackeray, NCP Chief Sharad Pawar and Devendra Fadnavis. 
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On the evening of Friday, 22 November, Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress finalised their alliance in Maharashtra. NCP Chief Sharad Pawar announced that there is consensus for Uddhav Thackeray becoming the next chief minister of Maharashtra.

This proved wrong BJP’s calculation that the three parties won’t be able to form a government. The saffron party then initiated its Plan B, which was the result of its secret negotiations with NCP leader Ajit Pawar.

The same evening as the Maha Vikas Aghadi’s announcement, the Centre got into action and decided to recommend the revocation of President’s Rule in Maharashtra. The decision was purportedly taken without a Cabinet meeting.

At 5:47 am on 23 November, Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari revoked President’s Rule.

At 8 AM, Devendra Fadnavis was sworn in as Chief Minister and Ajit Pawar as Deputy Chief Minister. Even Prasar Bharti wasn’t informed as that could have potentially led to the details leaking.

Thus began the 80-hour political thriller that engulfed Maharashtra. It was a battle of wits between the BJP, Ajit Pawar and the Union Government on the one hand and the Sena, NCP and Congress on the other.

Sharad Pawar’s Troubleshooting

There are two versions regarding whether NCP Chief Sharad Pawar knew of Ajit Pawar’s maneuvers. The official version of the NCP is that he came to know of it only a few hours before the swearing-in took place.

But some insiders say that Pawar knew and allowed Ajit Pawar to rebel so that he could be eliminated once and for all from the succession race in the party.

In either case, the swearing-in left Pawar with two urgent problems:

  • A trust deficit vis-a-vis his new ally Sena and even its old ally Congress. Sections within both the parties felt that they had been betrayed by Pawar
  • Confusion within the NCP ranks

Communication channels were immediately opened with Uddhav Thackeray and Sanjay Raut in the Sena and with Ahmed Patel, Mallikarjun Kharge, KC Venugopal and Prithviraj Chavan in the Congress.

Pawar and other NCP leaders explained at length how this was Ajit Pawar’s individual decision and didn’t have his backing.

The Sena leadership was initially skeptical but decided to go with Pawar anyway as it was the best way to salvage their chances of forming the government.

The more complicated task, however, was within the NCP. Many party MLAs genuinely thought the swearing-in of Ajit Pawar was indeed Sharad Pawar’s decision.

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It was when Supriya Sule put up a WhatsApp status which said “Party and family divided” that it became clear to many NCP MLAs that Ajit Pawar had pulled off a coup.

This was when senior NCP leaders Jayant Patil, Chaggan Bhujbal, Dilip Walse Patil and in some cases Sharad Pawar and Sule, sprang into action and began reaching out to MLAs, urging them not to back Ajit Pawar.

In many cases, the appeal was an emotional one from the 78-year-old NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar.

Meanwhile, the joint press conference was held with Pawar, Uddhav Thackeray and senior Congress leaders. They were careful not to attack Ajit Pawar and instead, focused their attention on targeting Governor Koshyari. The NCP was particular to not make it seem like a campaign against Ajit Pawar, lest he got sympathy from the party MLAs.

The Congress, on its part, deputed its legal brains like Abhishek Manu Singhvi and Kapil Sibal who, along with the Sena and NCP leaders, figured out how the Governor’s decision could be legally challenged.

‘Man-To-Man Marking’ & Resort Politics

Then began the drill of taking MLAs to five-star hotels and “protecting” them from possible poaching by BJP and Ajit Pawar.

Shiv Sena mobilised its extensive cadre network across Mumbai and took responsibility of providing “protection”. Senior Sena leaders Eknath Shinde, Milind Narvekar and Anil Desai took charge of this operation. They remained constantly in touch with leaders from both Congress and NCP, both of whom are comparatively weak in Mumbai.

It was felt that the MLAs need to be protected not just from BJP functionaries but from the police as well.

Hotels where Kamgar Sena - Shiv Sena’s labour wing - controlled the Unions were preferred as it would be much easier to keep track of the MLAs movements.

Kamgar Sena members working in the Mumbai Airport were also put on high alert and told to keep a watch on any MLAs who were being flown away outside the state.

One such NCP MLA, Sanjay Bansod from Udgir, was intercepted at the airport due to the efforts of the Sena. Eknath Shinde and Narvekar brought him back from the airport and dropped him to YB Chavan Centre, where Sharad Pawar was about to address all NCP MLAs.

A few NCP MLAs were “rescued” by NCP workers in Gurugram, Haryana. NCP workers claim they had to be sneaked out from their hotel despite being surrounded by hundreds of BJP youth cadres.

By the time Pawar began his address on Saturday evening, about 49 out of 54 NCP MLAs were present. Two others couldn’t reach but their families had already pledged that they would remain loyal to Sharad Pawar.

Pawar’s appeals had worked, aided by Sena’s ground game.

Breaking Ajit Pawar’s Will

With one MLA after the other expressing loyalty to Sharad Pawar, the tide had begun turning against Ajit Pawar by Saturday evening. Now, with the numbers in their favour, Pawar family members and NCP leaders began reaching out to Ajit Pawar.

“He is an emotional person and has a strong link with Sharad Pawar,” maintained almost every NCP leader. And this is the line that was used by the party as well as the Pawar family.

Ajit Pawar was taken by surprise at the MLAs refusal to support the BJP. On his part, he never projected his move as being against Sharad Pawar. His appeals were always on the lines that what he was doing was for the sake of the party and the family.

But with Sharad Pawar taking a very clear stand that this is not what he wanted, the MLAs became cold towards Ajit Pawar’s propositions.

By Monday, the battle shifted to the Supreme Court. Congress leader Kapil Sibal argued on behalf of the Sena, Abhishek Manu Singhvi on behalf on Congress and NCP, Tushar Mehta on behalf of Centre and Maninder Singh for Ajit Pawar.

Meanwhile, senior Sena leaders Anil Desai, Gajanan Kirtikar, Arvind Sawant and Rahul Shewale met interim Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

On the other side, the BJP realised that Ajit Pawar wasn’t delivering on the desired numbers from the NCP. So the party deputed Babanrao Pachpute, Narayan Rane, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and Ganesh Naik to target not just NCP but also Congress and Sena members.

But this didn’t succeed as throughout Monday, NCP leaders worked overtime to ensure that MLAs stayed loyal to it and the Sena-backed “security” remained on high alert.

This culminated in the massive show of strength on Monday evening at the Grand Hyatt in which the three parties paraded 162 MLAs as proof of their majority in the House.

Finally, when the Supreme Court decided on Tuesday that the floor test was to take place on Wednesday, the endgame began for Ajit Pawar. Very little room was left for him. The family once again reached out to him, with Sharad Pawar his wife Pratibha Pawar, Supriya Sule and her husband Sadanand Sule all speaking to him. Ajit Pawar decided to back down and resigned early on Tuesday. With no hope of gathering the numbers, Fadnavis resigned in the afternoon.

“From rescuing MLAs from BJP clutches in Haryana, to outwitting Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in their own game, this is like an operation Shivaji Maharaj would be proud of,” boasted a Sena leader, taking credit for the “guerrilla warfare”.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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