It’s a season of intrigues

Nagpur, Maharashtra’s winter capital, was ever a season of intrigues. Governments have been rather wary of holding the winter session of the legislature in Nagpur (which has just concluded this season) because more often than not it leads to a shake-up of some sort or the other, fells governments or at least puts one or the other chief minister in the dock.

I recall how, many years ago, the mighty Maratha warlord, Sharad Pawar, got really shaken up with a stampede among Gowari tribals when he failed to receive their leaders who wished to petition him for inclusion in a particular list of the most deprived adivasis. He could never live down that tragedy – he subsequently lost the next elections in March 1995.

Before him, though, poor Sudhakarrao Naik had got caught between duty and duty – the winter session was underway in Nagpur (which he couldn’t quit) while the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya. A day later, fires began to be lit in Bombay which he failed to put out. Soon he was out of a job as well.

But it is not just governments – the opposition, too, suffers much during the winter session of the legislature in Nagpur. In 1991, I recall, there was much intrigue as word went around that Chhagan Bhujbal was about to defect from the Shiv Sena to the Congress. Bhujbal vanished overnight from his rooms in the MLAs’ hostel. Shiv Sainiks came looking for him even at the hostel the journalists from Bombay were put up at; hoardes of them were posted at every railway station in Maharashtra and also at every airport. We were even asked by several Sena leaders to “put just two paras” of news in our respective newspapers – that Anand Dighe (then the Sena’s unofficial executioner) was on his way to Nagpur. That was meant to smoke Bhujbal out of his hiding. When he didn’t emerge, Sainiks rushed to nearby resorts like Tadoba, Nagzira (tiger country, appropriately) et al but Bhujbal was nowhere to be found.

On the fateful day when Bhujbal surfaced minutes before he announced his defection to the Assembly, we realised how ingenious – and simple – the Congress planning had been. They had hidden Bhujbal in the then Home Minister’s bungalow — in the servant’s quarters to be precise. And they had doubled the security under the guise that the Home Minister had to be protected against Naxal attacks – in fact, I recall, the minister had actually taken two days off, even while Bhujbal was hiding out at his home, to visit Gadchiroli to throw the Shiv Sainiks off the scent.

But, by the time Bhujbal resurfaced and they realised they had all the time been at a stone’s throw from his hideout, it was too late and the Shiv Sena had suffered its greatest setback up until then.

I guess such intrigue becomes possible precisely because the two-three weeks of the session (they tend to reduce it to just a little under two weeks these days to give as little opportunity as possible to plotters, conspirators, et al) outside the state capital leads to the concentration of all government authorities as well as the opposition within and inside a two-square-mile area of Nagpur. The legislators have nowhere to go except the limited hotels in the winter capital and it is so easy to post lookouts everywhere.

As happened this winter session, too. The Assembly was slated to discuss the Adarsh scam on a motion by the opposition. Just the evening before, Maharashtra’s new deputy chief minister, at his first winter session in the job, decided to host a dinner for all the legislators, including those from the opposition. Ajit Pawar was both deeply disappointed and miffed when the Leader of the Opposition, Eknath Khadse, did not turn up for over an hour after the appointed time. So Ajit, not to be slighted so easily, made a call to Khadse — on his cell phone. Khadse told Ajit he was snowed under paper work. In his chambers. Studying for the debate the next day.

I am told Ajit then activated his spies and lookouts. They looked for Khadse everywhere – in his chambers in the legislature building, at his official residence and in all the hotels that make the usual watering holes for legislators during these winter weeks in Nagpur.

Ultimately, I am told, they found Khadse – in a tete-a-tete with former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan at one of the better hotels in town, confabulating in a dark corner. And they saw much papers change hands at the end of their candle-light dinner together.

The next day, Khadse had not a word to say against Chavan’s alleged involvement in the Adarsh society scam. He concentrated mostly on the clearances that were given to the society by the previous two chief ministers – Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sushil Kumar Shinde.

When Khadse was later asked how he had spared Chavan during his address, he said, “What’s the use of flogging a dead horse? The man lost his job, didn’t he?”

But, of course, the real terms of the intrigue was clear to all in the know. Chavan had only the previous week at a public meeting at his home town, Nanded, lambasted some of his own party men (he meant Vilasrao Deshmukh) for “giving a supari” (putting out a contract) against him and helping to displace him as chief minister. He received what was described as a `bamboo’ from his high command in Delhi asking him to shut up and refrain from besmirching other leaders until the investigators had established culpability in the scam beyond doubt.

Khadse, I am told, was very startled when he was asked if he had taken a `supari’ from Chavan to do what Chavan himself had been forbidden to do by his high command. For Chavan, in his reply in the Assembly to Khadse’s allegation, said he was ‘very touched’ that the facts were now on the record and that Khadse had done a fine job of studying the scam before making any unfounded allegations.

Even as Chavan spoke, the man who had the biggest smirk on his face was Ajit Pawar. For, I am told, Ajit knew exactly what had been exchanged between the two, Chavan and Khadse. Apart from the papers and some words, that is.

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