Sailing in the same boat, with a difference

Bal Thackeray is in the habit of referring to Suresh Kalmadi as a frog. Well, Balasaheb can think of nothing but animal names to describe people but this time he was describing not Kalmadi’s physical characteristics but his political traits – he’s wont to leap like a frog from one party to another, Thackeray says.

That is because soon after the Congress went out of power in 1996, Kalmadi was desperate to be on the right side of the incoming government – to safeguard his enormous business interests which are rather more than just the few restaurants and car outlets he might own. So, in 1998, he decided to apply to the Shiv Sena-BJP for a ticket to the Lok Sabha from Pune (it is a BJP seat in the division between the allies). That’s when Thackeray took a written undertaking from Kalmadi: that he will stay committed to the saffron alliance and not jump ‘like a frog’ to a fourth party yet again.

Very few may now recall that Kalmadi had begun life as a Sharad Pawar acolyte. He was with the Congress-S first and then joined up the Congress-I when Pawar merged his party with the Indian National Congress. He continued to be a close Pawar aide through the ‘Eighties and half of the ‘Nineties before Pawar’s nephew, Ajit Pawar, began to come between them. So, when Pawar split the Congress, Kalmadi stayed with the INC, though before that he had made a temporary home with the Sena-BJP alliance.

After losing the 1998 election on a saffron ticket, when Kalmadi decided to go back to the Congress, Thackeray published his letter in the Saamna, that had pledged to stay devoted to the saffron parties. But reporters in Maharashtra had a fair idea why Kalmadi always needed to be on the winning side and were not really surprised when he switched parties over and over again.

I recall the time in 1998 – the twilight period for Kalmadi when he was neither here nor there – when he was pitted on a Sena-BJP ticket against the Congress in Pune. I had been following Pawar on his campaign trail and my interview with him had materialised almost at midnight at his hotel room in Karad.

I had known that Pawar’s campaigning did not remain confined to public meetings alone. The most important work began after those rallies when he would meet party workers through the wee hours of morning, sort out differences between warring factions, hold one-to-one meetings with pillars of society who could swing votes one way or the other and generally take stock of the situation wanting to hear critics more than sycophants so that he could get the pulse right.

So, even as I was in the middle of my interview, a Pune Congress functionary stormed into the room and would just not leave until he had had his say. Pawar excused himself but did not ask me to leave the room, so I sat in on the conversation.

Saheb, you have to do something about Kalmadi,” the Pune Congressman begged. “He is going around giving the impression that all is hunky-dory between you and him and that he is your candidate from the saffron alliance. This way we will never win the Pune seat – he will get all the saffron voters, of course. But most of ours will also go to him because people will think they are voting for your candidate rather than for the Sena-BJP.”

“Okay,” said Pawar and dismissed the man, who seemed greatly disappointed that Pawar had not come up with a solution. But, the next day, as I followed Pawar from Karad to his public rally in Pune, I was struck breathless by his answer to the problem. It was crude but one of the most effective methods of making the quarrel very public and final.

After going through the usual issues at that election, Pawar paused for breath and started to talk about his relationship with Kalmadi. “Yes, he was a friend,” he said. “But then I discovered what kind of a person he really is. And I decided I don’t want any part of him.”

Pawar did not tell us what he had discovered about Kalmadi that now made him persona-non-grata. But he said, “This is what I really think of him.” And before anyone could even blink, Pawar said, “Thoo!” in the direction of the floor of the dais, going through the motions of spitting. And then he stamped on it.

People at that rally were left in no doubt that Kalmadi was no longer a friend of Pawar’s and certainly not a Congressman they should vote for (needless to say, the Congress won that election).

As is wont, some local reporters tried to play more mischief between Kalmadi and Pawar and went straight to the former with the story. Of course, Kalmadi was hurt. “Well, he might spit at me but if I tell you things about him, no sound will come out of his throat for two months!” snapped Kalmadi.

When those reporters asked Pawar to react, he said, “And if I begin to tell you stories about him, he will not be able get up from his bed for two years!”

That was the end of that but we never got to know exactly what those damaging secrets were between Pawar and Kalmadi, though, over the months, as I nosed around, I got a fair idea of what they might be.

Kalmadi had learnt all his tricks from Pawar and became president of the Indian Olympic Association even before Pawar could rise above local sports like kho-kho and kabbadi. So, when the Maratha warlord decided to become the president of the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) and went after that position with a vengeance, most Kalmadi-Pawar watchers said that that was because he did not want to be second to his one-time protégé in any manner, even if it was just heading a sports body.

With cricket, I believe, Pawar surpassed even Kalmadi in things like clout and control of millions – a dead giveaway was Kalmadi’s peeved demand of Rs 100 crore from the BCCI to the Commonwealth Games (CWG) body in compensation for loss in ticket sales — or whatever.

But now, after the scam in the Indian Premier League (IPL) that did not leave Pawar unblemished, it is clear that the CWG scam is greater than anything we may have seen before. It also tells me that Kalmadi might have unlearnt much of what he had once learnt at Pawar’s feet. He did not put enough distance between himself and the alleged scamsters in the CWG committee nor did he dump the tainted ones as fast or as ruthlessly as Pawar, wanting to save his own skin from being scorched, had done a la Lalit Modi.

Else the hounds would not be baying so close or scratching at his own door.

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