Its Tharoor’s cricket versus Pawar’s

This is a story I have told to friends before on many occasions but now I feel the need to put it down in black and white.

When Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government fell by one vote in  1999, I asked Sharad Pawar, “Who do you think was responsible – Mayawati, Saifuddin Soz or Girdhar Gamang?’’
Soz was the singular member of his party (National Conference) in parliament at the time and Girdhar Gamang was Chief Minister of  Orissa. He hadn’t  resigned his Lok Sabha seat, yet  – a fact that made L K Advani cry foul about the impropriety of the Congress’s act in bringing Gamang to the Lok Sabha for the  confidence vote (you cannot hold two Constitutional posts at the same time and at least Advani was convinced that the Gamang vote caused the BJP their government).

I was startled by Pawar’s reply.  “Why not Ramsheth Thakur?’’ he asked me. Thakur was then an independent MP from  Maharashtra  (today he is with the Congress). Of course, I interpreted that as Pawar taking credit for bringing down the BJP government. Perhaps he was seeking that credit to qualify himself for the Prime Minister’s post. But, then, as we all know, the Congress could not cobble together its 272 members and Pawar split the party to form the Nationalist Congress Party  before the subsequent Lok Sabha elections.

So, as I saw it, it could have been anyone of those four MPs whose vote counted at that confidence motion. No one could have taken sole credit (and none of them did, really).

But then several years later, when Pawar was defeated by one vote at the election to the office of President of the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI), he was sure — when it could have been just about anyone who voted against him — that  it was just one man who had caused that defeat: Dnyaneshwar Agashe, who was then a voting member of the Mumbai Cricket Assocation.

As they tell it in Maharashtra, Agashe was late in reaching Calcutta – he was on a train that was delayed and Pawar , I am told, thought that was deliberate.  Pawar, they say,  thought he should have taken a flight and that would have got him to Calcutta on time. And Pawar is not one to forgive such slights easily.

No one quite knows if Agashe had indeed played to former BCCI chief Jagmohan Dalmia’s tune as Pawar supporters had alleged and deliberately come late to Calcutta to engineer’s Pawar defeat but the Maratha strongman never forgave the man even upto his death.

His friends and relatives still talk about it in hushed tones, for after that nothing went right for Dnyaneshwar Agashe. He was a vintner and soon he found he could get no farm workers to pick, harvest or crush his grapes; he could not show his wines anywhere at all; he could not get loans for the following grape season from any bank  anywhere… but the worst was yet to come.

There were many co-operative sector barons in Maharashtra who were involved in some scam or the other (most of them were with the NCP). Agashe, too, was named in one such scam that involved even ministers in the Maharashtra government. He found himself arrested (was it just a coincidence that the Maharashtra Home department was held by the NCP?) when nothing happened to any of the others in an identical situation. He was a diabetic but he was given no special health facilities in prison – he died of sheer medical negligence.

All of which could be sheer coincidence but those who tell the story with a shiver going down their spines are convinced he paid the price for thwarting Pawar in his ambitions to be BCCI chief the first time round. Of course, Pawar got the job the next year and his detractors are convinced he made sure that Dalmia was discredited with charges of embezzlement of BCCI funds for taking on Pawar the first time round. Dalmia could prove those charges as false through the Courts because he was a moneyed individual in his own right and he was in West Bengal, quite out of Pawar’s range, as it were, allege those who believe Pawar never forgives easily.

Actually there is more to such allegations but this is about all that I can bring into the public domain – though  I have known for a very long time now that Pawar gets such a reputation because such things happen round him quite frequently. That’s also  why most Maharashtra politicos – and even the Congress wallahs – run dead scared of him on this count . No one will quite take him on, to the chagrin of Congress bigwigs in New Delhi – they believe the wrath of their party president to be far more benign and thus well worth incurring in order to avoid the killing vengeance of the Maratha warlord!

Against this background, i believe Shashi Tharoor has become an inadvertent victim of Pawar’s wrath. He is a committed Congressman, loyal to his party president, determined to get cricket to Kerala  and clearly unbiddable (no pun intended) so far as Pawar is concerned. There are also reasons why Pawar does not like the majority stakeholders (the Gaekwads of Baroda) of the Kochi  franchise of the Indian Premier League and I know no one gets anything in Pawar’s domain if they do not enslave themselves to the Maratha warlord, or at least clearly place themselves in a secondary position to him.

From the little that I know of Tharoor, I can see that  the Union Minister of State for Foreign Affairs will never play second fiddle to anyone in a party not his own. And his integrity is now being called into question as a classic attempt to discredit the individual a la Agashe and Dalmia so that the fight goes out of them and only yes men remain round the powers-that-be.

Of course, Pawar has been very correct by publicly stating that Tharoor’s role in the franchise was limited to mentoring it but I do not believe IPL commissioner Lalit Modi would have been so stupid as to invite near-destruction of the IPL’s credibility by discrediting Tharoor if he had not thought that he had the backing of the most powerful people in this country. Even during IPL2, Modi’s challenge to Union Home Minister P Chidambaram to provide security to the IPL or else was part of that overconfidence – no one else in this country believed that elections were less important or needed less security than the cricket teams playing mega-bucks cricket for sheer entertainment. And, I think,  Modi believed he could get away with it only because of the kind of political backing he had.

So once again, this is a Congress-National Congress Party battle being played out by proxy – Chidambaram replaced in this instance by Shashi Tharoor. It is very important to Pawar that no other political party dominate cricket because in Maharashtra, his core base, elections are won on the basis of the popularity of politicians with various cricketing teams. And by this I do not mean the official cricket teams like Ranji or nationals.

With the kind of cricket craze that prevails in this country , the Shiv Sena, one of the nearest rivals to the NCP in terms of regional appeal, came to power largely on the support of the innumerable gully cricket clubs they fostered. That is why it was important to then Chief Minister Manohar Joshi to become the president of the Mumbai Cricket Association. And when he gave up that office he tried his level best to ensure one of his own protégés –  Ajit Wadekar – succeed him to the job.

Pawar contested that election against Wadekar – no one could understand why he should make a prestige battle out of such a small issue or why, after trying for the PMO, he should want to be merely the president of the Mumbai Cricket Association. Since then the NCP has taken a leaf out of the Shiv Sena’s book  and fostered cricket clubs all over, making a big shindig about the gully cricket competitions they have held while Pawar has taken care of cricket at the national level. Indeed the NCP is unable to distinguish between Pawar’s role as a cricket administrator and his role as their party president – to them they are interchangeable. So much so that when the Indian T20 team won their first world cup, their victory rally was appropriated by NCP bigwigs who used the platform at the Wankhede stadium in Bombay to sing laurels to Sharad Pawar as a great leader while there was little mention of the play our cricketers had put up at that tournament.

So now that Tharoor has dared (I am sure quite innocently) to take on the mighty Pawar, he finds himself in the kind of soup he had never imagined he would be served up for merely combining his passion for cricket with his commitment to his state (which is what Pawar is doing, after all). That is why, it is only right that the details of every other shareholder in every other IPL franchise be opened up just as Modi has done the Kochi franchise. I am sure many more skeletons will come tumbling out of those cupboards. And they will not all be Shashi Tharoor’s.

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