Book Extract from ‘Checkmate’: How Sharad Pawar played the kingmaker
Sudhir Suryawanshi in his book Checkmate, published by Penguin Random House, provides the inside story of how Uddhav Thackeray was persuaded to head the coalition government
Once the result was out, it was clear that the BJP could not form the government on its own. After addressing a press conference at Silver Oak, his residence, that the NCP would sit in the Opposition, Pawar left on the same day for Pune with his spouse, Pratibhatai Pawar, by road.
Pawar reached Panvel, and near the McDonald’s there, Shiv Sena MP and Saamana editor Sanjay Raut, was waiting for him. ‘We sat in Pawar Saheb’s car and discussed the strategy going ahead, and I gave Pawar Saheb the confidence that we could keep the BJP out of power. The Shiv Sena would get the chief ministerial post, which would be a great tribute to the late Bal Thackeray, long-time rival and friend of Pawar Saheb,’ said Raut to this author.
Pawar and Raut commuted together for more than an hour. Pawar also took the responsibility of pursuing Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, but told Raut that they should also start a dialogue with the state leaders of Congress. It was time to build the bridge of communication. Pawar’s vehicle by then had reached the Talegaon toll post, where Sanjay Raut was dropped off. Raut’s vehicle was following him and he returned to Mumbai with Pawar’s message before Uddhav Thackeray addressed the first press conference on the state assembly result.
Sanjay Raut had earlier met the NCP chief at Silver Oak in Mumbai. In this meeting, Raut had called up Shiv Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray, and Pawar and Thackeray had spoken for more than ten minutes on Raut’s phone. Thackeray told Pawar that whatever Raut would say would be the authorised stand of the Sena. Thackeray confirmed that Raut was his representative and would be speaking on behalf of the Sena, and his decision would be final for the party
Pawar had been pleasantly surprised upon hearing that Raut wielded a lot of power in the Sena. An NCP leader told the author that Raut, in this first meeting with Pawar, had conveyed Matoshree’s message that the Sena and the NCP needed to work together. Raut said that ‘Vahinisaheb’, Uddhav Thackeray’s politically astute wife Rashmi and also his key adviser, had decided that the Shiv Sena would not go with the BJP any more.
She believed that the Sena should assert its position. And it should look for alternatives to fulfill her and her father-in-law Bal Thackeray’s wish of a Sena chief minister in Maharashtra. The BJP also seemed to be playing a game with the Shiv Sena. It was taking advantage of the innocence of her husband, Uddhav Thackeray.
Pawar had apparently told Raut that he did not trust their words. They would fight one day but the very next day they would both peacefully enjoy power ( with BJP), like the last five years.
Raut repeated that the Sena was looking for alternatives. Pawar further asked him about what could be the alternative in this political scenario. Raut reassured him that the Sena was ready to join hands with the NCP and the Congress. Pawar was still incredulous. He was not convinced that the Sena would sever its ties with the BJP easily .
Raut tried his best to convince him that Vahinisaheb strongly wanted the Shiv Sena to get the chief ministerial post. Raut added that Aaditya Thackeray, Uddhav Thackeray’s son, was the best contender. If all things came together, Aaditya could be the first and the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra. The post could be shared with the NCP as well.
Pawar said that the Congress was not ready and that the NCP and the Sena did not have the needed numbers to stake a claim to form the government. Pawar promised to try. He also observed that their (the Sena’s) hard-line tone towards the minorities should change. Like in the 1960s, its focus should be on issues of the ‘son of the soil’, not Hindutva. It should dilute its uncompromising Hindutva ideology. In the subsequent issue of Saamana, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, an editorial appeared with the message, ‘Maharashtra is Shiv Sena’s priority.’
On Nov. 11, the NCP chief, Sharad Pawar, had a meeting with Shiv Sena chief, Uddhav Thackeray, at Taj Lands End Hotel, Bandra. In this meeting, Ajit Pawar, Sunil Tatkare and Dilip Walse-Patil were also present, and it was here that it was formally decided that the Congress, the Shiv Sena and the NCP would form a coalition.
However, while Sharad Pawar was confident about government formation, he was concerned about the chief ministerial candidate. After the Taj meeting, Sharad Pawar, while heading downstairs in an elevator, asked Raut, ‘It is fine that we are coming together and forming the government, but who will be the leader? Who will be the chief minister?’
Pawar added, ‘I am hearing a couple of names but those names are not acceptable. Aaditya [Thackeray] is too junior to lead, Ajit Pawar and other senior leaders cannot work under him. Eknath Shinde and Subhash Desai’s names are not acceptable to us. Desai sleeps in the Cabinet.’ Pawar did have a name in mind, and hinted that Uddhav Thackeray had to lead.
Raut immediately went back to the room where Uddhav and Aaditya Thackeray were sitting. He informed them that Pawar was ready to form the alliance, but he was concerned about the chief ministerial candidate. Raut reported ‘The names which are floated for the chief ministerial position are not acceptable to them. He wants you as the chief minister of Maharashtra.’
Uddhav Thackeray was very uneasy. ‘I have never been in the government,’ he said. Raut replied, ‘If you wish to have a CM from the Shiv Sena, then you have to prepare yourself and be ready to be the CM of Maharashtra. Otherwise, the NCP and the Congress will not give their support.’ Aaditya Thackeray, who was listening to this conversation, earnestly jumped into the discussion and told his father, ‘Baba [father], you have to accept the challenge. You have to lead Maharashtra . . . You have to do it for the future of the party and state.
(Excerpted from ‘Checkmate - How The BJP Won And Lost Maharashtra’ by Sudhir Suryawanshi with the author’s permission)