How BJP pulled the rug from under Shiv Sena's feet

Updated: Nov 24, 2019, 06:55 IST | Dharmendra Jore | Mumbai

A blow-by-blow account of how BJP shook the state after identifying NCP's Ajit Pawar as the weakest link in the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress axis

Supriya Sule and Sanjay Raut seem to be discussing a few last-minute points before the press conference held by Shiv Sena leader Udhav Thackeray and NCP chief Sharad Pawar on Saturday, while NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal looks on. Pics/ Suresh Karkera
Supriya Sule and Sanjay Raut seem to be discussing a few last-minute points before the press conference held by Shiv Sena leader Udhav Thackeray and NCP chief Sharad Pawar on Saturday, while NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal looks on. Pics/ Suresh Karkera

On Friday night, newspapers went to press with Uddhav Thackeray, who was the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance's chief minister candidate, on their front pages.

On Saturday morning, TV channels opened their broadcasts with news that Devendra Fadnavis has been sworn in as chief minister, with Ajit Pawar as his deputy.

Come Saturday night, there were only two questions in the state's political circles: 1. How many MLAs does Ajit Pawar have? 2. What will happen in the Supreme Court, which will hear the tri-party alliance's challenge of the governor's decision at 11.30 am today.

For the first question, BJP sources told mid-day that Ajit Pawar had the support of 28 NCP MLAs, even as the breakaway NCP strongman himself remained unavailable for comment.

Both sides had their own answers to the second question. BJP sources said Ajit Pawar was the leader of NCP's legislative party at the time he met the governor with MLAs' letters of support. And while the NCP by Saturday evening gave these powers to Jayant Patil, the sources said for all legal purposes Ajit Pawar remained NCP's legislative party leader.

The NCP camp was under the belief that it will be Patil who will be considered leader of the legislative party on the day of the floor test.

Further, late on Saturday, NCP sources said they have prepared fresh letters of support for the Sena from 42 MLAs, under its newly appointed legislative party leader Jayant Patil. This, they said, will nullify the 54 letters Ajit Pawar 'stole' on Saturday morning.

The Sena and the Congress have also prepared the letters, and everything will be part of the petition in the apex court, where they will ask for a chance to form government and an immediate floor test.

Saturday Sillies

The hectic day's drama came a month after the state voted back the BJP-Sena alliance to power, and the latter broke away due to a dispute over the CM's post. The overnight machinations of the BJP and the governor's alacrity in swearing in Fadnavis shook the Sena, Congress and NCP, who decried Bhagat Singh Koshyari's decision and moved Supreme Court. They also accused the BJP of blackmailing Ajit Pawar, who has several corruption charges against him.

"I would like to express my gratitude to NCP's Ajit Pawarji for taking the decision and coming together with BJP for a stable government in Maharashtra," Fadnavis told news agency ANI. "Some other leaders also came with us and we staked claim to form the government."

State BJP president Chandrakant Patil said the Sena had disrespected the people's mandate and tried underhand tactics to form government, resulting in Saturday's developments.

BJP workers put up a poster of Devendra Fadnavis after his swearing-in as chief minister early Saturday morning
BJP workers put up a poster of Devendra Fadnavis after his swearing-in as chief minister early Saturday morning

"The alliance got 161 seats, but the Sena betrayed the mandate," he said. "From Day 1, they started talking about alternatives. Since they tried a lot of tricks, we too went in for guerrilla tactics."

The day also witnessed much speculation about Sharad Pawar's role and intentions. Did he conspire with PM Narendra Modi to pull the rug from under the Sena's feet, while projecting Ajit Pawar as the bad apple? Some BJP leaders thought so. "All this was decided in that meeting [with Modi]. Mr [Sharad] Pawar is behind all this drama," said a senior BJP leader.

However, an NCP leader told mid-day that Sharad Pawar had actually told Modi he shouldn't accept Ajit Pawar's helping hand, if it came to that.

Sharad Pawar dismissed both versions. He said it was Ajit Pawar's personal decision to support the BJP and threatened prospective defectors with action under the anti-defection law and a sound drubbing in the by-polls.

Ajit's Arithmetic

As the day wore on, NCP MLAs started trickling back to the mother ship, at least for appearance's sake. By Saturday night, almost all of the party's MLAs assembled before Sharad Pawar, with just three remaining with Ajit Pawar. Most of those who returned, claimed that they were fooled by Ajit Pawar into going to Raj Bhavan.

And as rumours started that nine NCP MLAs were to be flown to New Delhi, Sena and NCP strongmen tracked them down and brought them to the NCP headquarters.

The Sena locked up its flock in a city hotel, and the Congress was set to take its bunch again to Jaipur. All this indicates that the BJP will find it tough to show a majority on November 30, especially if Ajit Pawar is no longer able to wield authority as NCP's legislative party leader.

With the stick of disciplinary action hanging, the NCP also extended a carrot to Ajit Pawar. Senior leaders, including cousin Supriya Sule, urged him to withdraw from the new formation, but he allegedly retorted by asking his uncle to join hands with the BJP if the NCP was to be saved.

Late night strike

Earlier on Friday night, BJP executed what its leaders say was always its Plan B. The party had been in touch with Ajit Pawar since the day results were announced, sources said, through common friends. When Ajit Pawar disagreed with his uncle over the power-sharing arrangement with the Sena, the BJP had identified a weakness. The party swung into action, with Fadnavis approaching Raj Bhavan sometime after 9.30 pm on Friday to apprise the governor of his willingness and ability to form government.

Ajit Pawar met the governor around midnight and gave him a letter that had the signatures of all 54 NCP legislators. (Sharad Pawar later alleged that this was unethical.) The governor took 30 minutes to recommend the lifting of President's rule, which was approved at 5.47 am.

Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta, who had planned a weekend holiday, was alerted. Meantime, a small-scale ceremony was readied. Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar were invited for swearing in at 6 am and administered oath by 8.10 am.

And then all hell broke loose.

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