Manohar Joshi was clever. Was he wise?

Sophistry was the middle name of Manohar Joshi. And that brought about his great downfall before its time

Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar (second and third from left) at Manohar Joshi's funeral (photo: PTI)
Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar (second and third from left) at Manohar Joshi's funeral (photo: PTI)

Sujata Anandan

When the Shiv Sena first stormed to power in alliance with the BJP in Maharashtra in 1995, the party's founder Bal Thackeray had few choices other than Manohar Gajanan Joshi — who passed away today in a Mumbai hospital aged 86 — as chief minister. Little did Thackeray, or anyone else at the time, know that the decision was doomed to eventually split the Shiv Sena down the middle.

Not only did it set other, far more loyal, leaders bickering with Thackeray, but also engineered multiple splits within the party with Joshi at the centre of them all. Moreover, Joshi’s actions in government over the next four-and-a-half years would render Thackeray’s extra-constitutional and absolute powers useless as Joshi made sure that Shiv Sainiks realised where the real authority lay in the party and government, and recognised that Thackeray was entirely dependent on him for the exercise of those powers.

The first of the three splits that weakened the Shiv Sena, however, came in 1991, before Joshi became chief minister. The first of these was by Chhagan Bhujbal, currently food and civil supplies minister in the Eknath Shinde government, who had always felt he deserved any top job in the party more than Joshi did. After all, Bhujbal had been winning his seat in the Assembly for years, whereas Joshi had had to be 'adjusted' in the upper house with help from the Congress.

Yet, the first time Joshi won his Assembly seat from Dadar in 1989, he was made leader of opposition and a minister, and Bhujbal had to be content as a sidekick. Thackeray pacified Bhujbal by promising to rotate the post of LoP, but when that was not forthcoming, he walked out of the party with a substantial chunk of MLAs, greatly weakening Thackeray and the party at the height of the Sena’s reputation for being a 'terror'.

But despite Bhujbal's exit, Joshi did not have a smooth ride in government.  Waiting in the wings was Narayan Rane, who felt he deserved the job as much as Bhujbal, and eventually persuaded Thackeray to junk Joshi and make him CM in the last six months of the government.

Joshi never forgave Rane for this, and when the party fell short of a majority in 1999, it was Joshi who made sure that Rane was always two MLAs short of the number required to stake his claim as CM, making the MLAS Rane had brought together painstakingly during the day, disappear almost overnight.

This continued for a week, until the governor got tired of the farce and called in the Congress to form the government that year. A disappointed Rane could not stay on in the Shiv Sena, and split a few years later.

One must concede that Joshi was a far better candidate than Rane with his multiple criminal records. So what made Thackeray change his mind? The first reason was Joshi’s boast that despite 40 years in public life and four years in government, no one had brought corruption allegations against him.

Narayan Rane (centre) at Joshi's last rites (photo: PTI)
Narayan Rane (centre) at Joshi's last rites (photo: PTI)

At the time, Thackeray was reeling under a series of charges that linked his nephew Raj Thackeray to serious charges of murder, land grab, misappropriation of funds that should have been deposited in government coffers after a charity show for unemployed youth, and general misuse of authority. So Joshi’s statement was taken as a personal slight.

But it was his other so-called misdemeanour that was more damning in Thackeray’s eyes. The Shiv Sena supremo had always insisted that Sharad Pawar and his cohorts had started off the post-Babri riots in Mumbai in 1992-93, without a shred of proof to substantiate the claim. But when the Srikrishna Commission probing the riots indicted BJP leader L.K. Advani for stocking the tinder with his rath yatra and Thackeray for lighting the fire, he directed Joshi to make sure the commission report somehow indicted Pawar, who had been given a clean chit, so that he could save some face.

But Joshi was under oath, and too sophisticated to criminally tamper with a commission report. So he used the gap between his reply in the form of an action taken report and the time it took to circulate the commission’s report to the media to 'pretend' that Srikrishana had indeed indicted Pawar.

As wire services, agencies and newspapers with early deadlines went viral with their headlines indicting Pawar on the basis of Joshi’s statement to the house, other reporters turning the pages of the commission's report for confirmation over and over again were flummoxed when they could find nothing of the kind said by Srikrishna.

Until a furious Pawar flew in from New Delhi the next morning to hold a seemingly needless press conference and primed a couple of reporters to ask the definitive question in case the others missed the discrepancy.

”Oh yes, I know," said Pawar in an uncharacteristically tearful voice. “Joshi called me minutes after he had made that statement in the Assembly. To apologise. He told me his leader wanted me indicted. So he had had no choice except for some political sophistry.”

Pawar then proceeded to nail Joshi’s coffin. “It is really not fair,” he moaned. “Betraying a friendship like this (they had been long-term friends). You cannot apologise to someone in private after falsely condemning him in public.”

That was the end of Thackeray’s friendship with Joshi too. The Sena chief would never trust his CM again, and never hand him another post of importance. Joshi was dispatched to New Delhi, first as a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, then as speaker of the Lok Sabha. But before he was completely cut out of public life by Thackeray’s son Uddhav, Joshi engineered the third spilt in the Shiv Sena — through Raj Thackeray, who was offered huge funds by Joshi to buy stakes in his Kohinoor mills redevelopment scheme.

Of course, neither Thackeray nor Uddhav were amused, and Raj soon quit, finding himself reduced to nothing by both his uncle and cousin in the party. Also, Uddhav banished Joshi to the sidelines despite the latter's desire to continue in public life for a little longer.

At the end of the day, one can only say, Manohar Gajanan Joshi was too clever by half. But wise?

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