The politics of convenience: What we learnt from three books exploring the high drama of Maharashtra's 2019 assembly election
What emerges from the three books is something we know already — that democracy is much beyond elections
Every cliché about politics was proved right in the course of events after the 2019 assembly election in Maharashtra and from a party that won the maximum seats, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suddenly found itself catapulted into the Opposition. Not for the first time, a combination of shrewd political chicanery (usually the BJP’s forte), but this time, engineered by a master player, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar, had the BJP on the ropes and deprived it of a much-vaunted rerun.
The vacillations of politicians seem stranger than fiction, for want of a better phrase, and even the most cynical imagination wouldn’t have dreamt up the post-election high jinks in Maharashtra in 2019. This was not an opportunity to be missed and at least three books have emerged in the span of six months on the political “game of thrones” in the state on the government formation in Maharashtra after 36 days of its assembly elections in October 2019. The BJP was left aghast at the turn of events, though it had a brief stab at power, in tandem with the rebellious Ajit Pawar. Its electoral face, the outgoing chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had led a high-powered campaign with the immortal lines that “he would come back” (mee punha yein). Journalist Kamlesh Sutar writes that he was the only man after Vasantrao Naik to have completed a full term as Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, but ironically, he would also be the state’s Chief Minister for the shortest tenure of 80 odd hours.
36 Days (counting from 24 October when the election results were announced to 28 November when the chief minister was sworn in) by Sutar is one of the three books explaining the extraordinary events which saw a rebellion, a swearing-in, a court case and another swearing-in of an unlikely coalition in the state. It is not easy to give a coherent narrative shape to the over month-long string of events that finally led to the BJP’s ouster and the unexpected coronation of Uddhav Thackeray as a chief minister of a Congress-NCP-Shiv Sena alliance or the Maha Vikas Aghadi. Sutar manages it deftly while holding the reader's attention; and even though his prose could do with some editing (something his publisher should have addressed), that doesn’t take away from his assembly of facts.
The book presents the day-wise events of those crucial weeks and is more of a reporter’s diary based on Sutar’s own sources and is rather uncritical of the devious machinations. Sutar calls the book “his ode to the politics of Maharashtra” and describes Sharad Pawar’s rain-drenched speech in Satara as the defining moment of the 2019 state assembly elections. Although the book — a result of his reportage — doesn’t provide any deep critical insights, the ringside view of the events as they unfolded can keep one hooked, especially if you haven’t followed them with breathless excitement when they happened. There are some vignettes of Uddhav and his wife Rashmi, who seems to have played a rather important role in all of this, as also of the hapless Phadnavis and the canny Sharad Pawar.
While Sutar prefers the barebones diary form, Sudhir Suryawanshi’s Checkmate has devoted some space to the history of Maharashtra and provides context and background to the political events leading up to the present. The dizzying events after the election results were announced on 24 October, finally culminated in Maharashtra getting its first chief minister from the Thackeray family, and its first elected representative in the form of Aditya. Uddhav was at the head was an unlikely alliance stitched together by Pawar, who emerged once again as a kingmaker, something all the three books elaborate on at length.
Suryawanshi is less awestruck by political developments and politicians, and tries to keep a distance as a reporter and add a perspective to some extent. He also discusses the close links going back many years between the Congress, the Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar, which is no secret. The Maha Vikas Aghadi then is not a new concept, only this time it became a formal alliance to rule the state, and that forms the crux of his book’s analysis. Seemingly, the power centre of Matoshree — the Thackeray home — and the ruler of the state were finally one, but the author leaves no doubt that the man behind it was all was the one who delivered a rain-soaked speech in Satara in a hard campaign for the 2019 assembly elections, a leitmotif of sorts in all the books.
Of the three books, Jitendra Dixit’s 35 Days is the one which acknowledges the games that politicians play and how little they have to do with democracy, ethics or fair play. Yet, everything is done in the name of the people, and public emotions are played with to achieve power in the name of representation. What emerges from the three books is something we know already — that democracy is much beyond elections. We also expect them to govern, but for politicians, power is an end and the means to achieve that can be unscrupulous at best. The people in reality matter little in this game. The quality of governance in Maharashtra is evidence of this fact that power games don’t necessarily translate into good governance all the time.
The books typically also concern themselves with the personality of politicians and offer little nuggets of information on their personal lives and the events of those crucial 36 days. Dixit too cannot resist eulogising political leaders, notably Sharad Pawar, who has been described often as Chanakya, Machiavelli and whose surname has almost become synonymous with power (Pawar) games. The chronology of events is almost similar in all the three books, but Suryawanshi gives us a hint of what the future leaders of Maharashtra look like in the form of Aditya Thackeray and Rohit Pawar. Dynastic succession is intact in the state it seems. Also, sadly, though none of the books touch upon it, there is little room for women leaders in the political scheme of things, even if Rashmi Thackeray does play a role. Supriya Sule, despite her impeccable pedigree, looks as if she is not going to make the cut either. All the more reason for a women’s reservation bill to be passed soon.
A puzzling aspect of the shenanigans in Maharashtra is the seeming non-interference from the Prime Minister and Amit Shah. Speculations are rife on this score and all the three books make a mention of this aspect. Dixit pinpoints the reasons for Sharad Pawar spurning Modi’s offer of an alliance with the BJP in Maharashtra in 2019 which he reveals in a TV interview (the NCP had supported the BJP briefly in 2014 in the state). Possibly Pawar felt that an alliance with the Congress and Shiv Sena would give him more of a role to play in the state, a fact which has come true. Dixit also discusses the reincarnation of the Shiv Sena as a party which was built on creating an enemy to polarise communities. This was the party suddenly faced with the mantle of secularism and the Sena has had to embrace all its past enemies.
It says something about politicians that every time there is a threat to the party, its MLAs are herded into buses and shuttered in five-star hotels under heavy guard. I sometimes wonder what would happen to politics if there were no five-star hotels. The Shiv Sena was considerate, and even provided entertainment for its MLAs, as well as home-cooked Maharashtrian food including “zunka bhakar”! All the books deal extensively with the bussing of MLAs, their luxurious incarceration and also the efforts of a “beautiful Haryanvi” (Sonia Doohan, the NCP student wing chief) in getting the NCP MLAs who were imprisoned by the BJP out of their five-star prison in Gurugram. Dixit at least doesn’t make these unnecessary references to Doohan’s appearance or community, and is matter of fact in his writing. He is also the only one discussing the future of a coalition government and how precarious that can be. While the coalition depends on how skilfully the parties can integrate, the cracks are already showing. A real worry for the NCP should be the taciturn Ajit Pawar who is a bit of a loose cannon. Much would depend on how the leadership roles between him and Sule are balanced within the NCP.
The three books are written by reporters who have covered politics for a long time and have a bird’s eye view of the developments. The narratives are enriched by their access to politicians, the most inscrutable of all creatures, but that doesn’t necessarily make them uncritical of their subjects. Yet, all three in their own way have made valuable contributions to understanding the political scenario in Maharashtra and the bitter reality of politicians and parties who are self-serving more than ever and care little for the people whom they claim to represent.
— Checkmate: How the BJP Won and Lost, by Sudhir Suryawanshi, is published by Penguin Random House
— 36 DAYS: A Political Chronicle of Ambition, Deception, Trust and Betrayal, by Kamlesh Sutar, is published by Rupa Publications
— 35 Days: How Politics In Maharashtra Changed Forever In 2019, by Jitendra Dixit, is published by HarperCollins
File image of Uddhav Thakeray and Sharad Pawar, via Twitter@PawarSpeaks
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