Maharashtra's autumn of discontent

The book will serve as a chronicle for students of politics for years to come
For a politics junkie, fly-on-the wall accounts of political crises are compulsive reading, no matter in what part of the globe the crisis might occur. The midnight meetings, the notes passed under the table, the leaked e-mails, the chirp of tyres as people coming out of one meeting leave in a hurry, not wanting to be seen by another group, the whispered counsel by aides, the smoke-filled rooms, the ultimate stab in the back… ah ! intoxicating.

This is why Kamlesh Sutar’s book on the 36-day drama in Maharashtra, that eventually led to the installation of Uddhav Thackeray as chief minister, is so utterly satisfying. Mr Sutar is eminently qualified to write about the political personalities involved and their motivations:  He has reported on Maharashtra politics for well-nigh two decades. He brings to bear his knowledge of the history and politics of the state and his access to all the major politicians to put together a book that doesn’t judge or preach but simply describes the moves made by the actors involved. The book will serve as a chronicle for students of politics for years to come.

So what really happened in Maharashtra that autumn of 2019?

Mr Sutar tells us that the alliance between the Shiv Sena (SS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was already unravelling before the autumn Assembly elections: No revelation there, because sniping at the BJP by the Sena was so routine it had become boring. Every week Saamna,  the party mouthpiece, would come out with some smart-alec comment on the Maharashtra chief minister (CM) and the state BJP’s conduct. Mr Sutar says the Sena was feeling betrayed that the BJP had given it just one ministership in the central council of ministers — the same one it had held in the first Modi tenure. The BJP was obviously not happy with the Sena but had been forced to grin and bear the humiliation because it knew it could not form a government without the Sena’s help. The two reluctant partners entered a marriage that was made in hell. It eventually unravelled for the reason marriages do: Because trust dies and both partners find other more sympathetic embraces.

If the election had thrown up a slightly different result, the story might have been different. But with 105 seats in a 288-member house, the BJP could not form a government on its own. Nor could the Sena with just 56. So the Sena reminded BJP of promises made in the past — that the chief ministership should go to the Sena — or the alliance was off.

36 DAYS: A Political Chronicle of Ambition, Deception, Trust and Betrayal
Author: Kamlesh Sutar
Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 240
Price: Rs 225 (Kindle)


And we’re off on a 36-day ride through the back alleys and the sleazy underbelly of deals reneged, leaders undermined and promises broken. Mr Sutar hints at the  politics inside the BJP: Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis’s position, ringed as he was with adversaries within the party , though many of them lost the elections (such as Pankaja Munde);  and the role of Home Minister Amit Shah who was so active in Haryana (where, too, the election did not deliver the desired result and a coalition had to be cobbled together), but in Maharashtra acted as the dog that did not bark. He describes the moves made by Ajit Pawar, the Trojan horse from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) headed by his uncle Sharad but does not offer conclusive evidence of Sharad Pawar’s fore-knowledge that his nephew was going to jump ship along with many trusted party leaders and offer his support to the BJP. Ajit Pawar later returned to the NCP, and is now  finance minister. 

Mr Sutar describes with aplomb and objectivity, Ajit Pawar’s upbringing, his training in politics, the betrayal and his return. All this is par for the course. But the most interesting elements in the book, which lend it credibility, are the carefully collected and crosschecked facts that we never get to know about politicians. For instance, Ajit Pawar’s jumping ship was such a carefully kept secret that no one knew about his dealings, not even senior party colleague Jayant Patil, who is apparently a dedicated follower of the Jack Ryan series and was binge watching the latest episode till late at night and so could not be roused when Messrs Fadnavis and Pawar took their oaths in the Raj Bhavan before 7 a m. Similarly, Devendra Fadnavis’s last speech in the Assembly ended with a poem written by him which declared, Arnie style, that chuna (lime) with you when you come back”.

But jokes apart, Mr Sutar’s book must be treasured because it explains the Maharashtra political background beautifully and with great felicity, sliding aside the excreta of bovines that political rhetoric is usually all about. For instance, he notes ironically that the “plight of farmers”  suddenly became the most consuming concern of every politician as they emerged after meeting each other — and the Governor —  and had to face TV cameras. 

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