Journalist Kamlesh Sutar has likened the government formation by Maha Vikas Aghadi (Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party, Congress) in the aftermath of 2019 Maharashtra Assembly elections as the battle of Kurukshetra described in the Mahabharat. That battle lasted for 18 days. And this battle for government formation went on for 36 days.
Neither of these battles was a spontaneous attack. Rather, the seeds of both were sown over the years, and a broken promise tipped the scales in both cases. Embedded with tales of ambition, deception, trust and betrayal, 36 Days reads like a quintessential thriller. Only, it is for real…
An excerpt from the book 36 Days
DAY 6: TUESDAY, 29 OCTOBER 2019
It was Bhau-Beej (or Bhai Dooj) in Maharashtra, the last of the Diwali celebrations. Leaders from BJP had earlier announced that the discussions on government-formation would start after Diwali.
It was going to be an important day, with the first round of talks between BJP and Shiv Sena leaders scheduled for that evening. With the Shiv Sena still sticking to its guns over the Chief Minister post, all eyes were on how the discussions would move forward.
Senior leaders from both the parties were deputed for the initial round of talks, after which Fadnavis and Uddhav were going to take a final call. Unlike its tirade against the BJP over the last few days, Saamana took a break on Tuesday morning, choosing instead to praise the Modi–Shah duo for the abrogation of Article 370 in its editorial. A delegation of the European Union was in Kashmir to study the situation in the valley after the abrogation of Article 370, and Saamana urged the delegation to go back, saying that the abrogation was part of a war against Pakistan-sponsored terror and that the Modi government had won that war. While some may have read it as a sign of a thaw between the warring allies, it was illusory...
12.30 p.m., Varsha
Every year, the Maharashtra Chief Minister hosts a festive lunch for journalists at his official residence. Ever since he became the CM, Fadnavis, who was once known for his frequent media interactions, had cut down on it. A section of media held a grudge against Fadnavis for meeting selective journalists. With no sign of defrosting between the Shiv Sena and BJP even on Day 6, journalists were looking forward to this opportunity to meet and interact with Fadnavis.
In his usual calm, Fadnavis walked into the special canopy erected for the function. The interactions during the CM’s annual festive lunch with the journalists are usually off the records, but at a time when the political activity was at its peak, no conversations could be off the record. The man who had already announced on the floor of the house that he ‘will’ return as the Chief Ministeragain had a lot to offer, this cloudy afternoon with light showers.
‘Contrary to whatever that is being reported in the media, the government will be formed under BJP’s leadership and I have no doubt that I will be the Chief Minister again,’ Fadnavis confidently reiterated. This has been his stand since the day of the election results. In a mood to hit sixers on all the bouncers that came in, Fadnavis assertively announced that there was no Plan B or Plan C; there was only one Plan A, and it was going to work. As expected, Fadnavis was asked about the recent barbs in Saamana about the BJP and the alliance, but he maintained his usual stand on the issue—that they don’t take Saamana seriously. This had been his stand even when he was the CM; he would say that he only takes whatever Uddhav Thackeray says seriously.
Today, however, he hit out at the Sena mouthpiece saying it was derailing talks with its barbs. The anger in the reply was evident. Barely 24 hours ago, Sanjay Raut had dared the BJP to form a minority government, like in 2014. The brazen dare hadn’t gone down well with BJP’s state leadership. ‘Saamana writes things that even Congress and NCP won’t say. They should show the same fortitude while writing against the NCP. You contest together, win together, then why such remarks in Saamana?’ a visibly irritable Fadnavis told the gathering of journalists.
Fadnavis was unstoppable that afternoon. This wasn’t the first time the Shiv Sena had dared the BJP in such a manner. In spite of being part of the government, Uddhav had time and again said that he doesn’t care for power. Once he even went on to say that his ministers in the Fadnavis government carry their resignations in their pocket. Fadnavis’s attack on Shiv Sena only got bigger as he was asked about the party demanding the CM’s post on rotational basis for first two and a half years. ‘Shiv Sena may even demand the CM’s post for five years... Wishing for something like this and it actually happening are two different things,’ Fadnavis said, clearly turning down the proposal. ‘They should first come with whatever demands they have; we will discuss those on merit when we sit for talks,’ he added, while also informing that there have been no talks of government formation with the Shiv Sena till now.
But the biggest statement from Fadnavis was yet to come. Though he was always known to say politically correct things, the statement he was about to make was going to leave the Shiv Sena red-faced. The man who was in control of the press conference where the alliance for Lok Sabha and assembly elections was sealed made a revelation: ‘There was never any promise on the CM’s post in the 50:50 formula,’ Fadnavis revealed. Within the next half hour, TV screens were full of breaking news reading Fadnavis denied any promise of a rotational CM’s post.
There was anger and anxiety in the Shiv Sena camp after Fadnavis’s denial of the deal. The man who was leading the charge for Shiv Sena, Sanjay Raut was thronged by journalists at the Saamana office in Prabhadevi. Raut was animatedly holding and waving his mobile phone. He then played a video clip of the 18 February 2019 press conference on the phone in front of TV cameras. In it could be seen Fadnavis announcing that the BJP and Shiv Sena have decided on having a 50:50 per cent sharing of positions and responsibilities.
‘Our only expectation is that whatever was decided on powersharing should be honoured. The definitions of equal distribution haven’t changed. If Fadnavis is saying nothing was decided, then he should clarify on what was it that was decided in that meeting,’ Raut said. And then came the bolt from the blue: ‘If there was no formula discussed, what is the need for talks? As asked by my Party President Uddhav Thackeray, we are calling off the meeting with BJP scheduled this evening...’ Raut announced.
Within an hour, Uddhav’s media advisor Harshal Pradhan shot off the same video on several WhatsApp groups with the title, ‘Jara Yaad Karo Jabani (remember the assurance)’.
5 p.m., Karad, District Satara, Prithviraj Chavan’s hometown
The knives were out. BJP’s denial of the power-sharing promise had angered the Shiv Sena. In Nagpur, Congress leader Vijay Wadettiwar called the fight between Shiv Sena and BJP a cat fight. But in Karad in western Maharashtra, former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan had a different view. The man, known to be close to 10, Janpath (residence of the Gandhi family), was asked whether Congress would think of supporting the Shiv Sena if need be. Though initially dubbed as a hypothetical question, what Prithviraj said in response later was certainly going to raise eyebrows: ‘[I]f Sena wants then they should approach us with a proposal...if they do, we will put it before our party high command and also discuss it with our ally... For now there isn’t any such proposal...’
So, was Prithviraj Chavan hinting at extending a ‘hand’ to Shiv Sena, or was the Congress trying to just fish in troubled waters?
(This extract has been published with permission from 36 Days: A Political Chronicle of Ambition, Deception, Trust and Betrayal. The book, written by Kamlesh Sutar, has been published by Rupa)