Late this afternoon, the Shiv Sena was convinced that a meeting of its top ally, Sharad Pawar, with Home Minister Amit Shah, was the stuff of feverish political imaginations.
“I can say with conviction that the meeting did not take place”, tweeted Sanjay Raut, a leader of the Sena, trying his hand at moving the pendulum back from where he had set it just hours ago – the day began with him acknowledging that the storied dinner meeting, just two days old, was in the realm of possibility – or at any rate, his party had no reason to believe otherwise.
“If Amit Shah and Sharad Pawar met, why worry,” he had tendered, “can’t a senior MP meet the Home Minister?”
So, from a quizzical “did they” at breakfast to a “they did not” by (a late) lunch.
The shifting uneasily from one foot to the other is comprehensible. If Mr Pawar did indeed meet the Home Minister at a Gujarati billionaire’s Ahmedabad home on Saturday night, it would considerably bulk up the strain being shouldered by the three-party government in Maharashtra.
The entire matter is docked on whether Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, a senior leader of Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party or the NCP, did or did not deploy a controversial police officer, Sachin Vaze, to “collect” 100 crores every month for the government.
The alleged exercise in extortion blew up in an unattended SUV being parked about a month ago near the legendary Mumbai home of Mukesh Ambani; within, gelatin sticks and a note warning the industrialist and his wife of imminent danger.
The SUV’s license plates turned out to be fake; the man who reportedly owned it, Mansukh Hiran, was found dead in a river within the week. His wife said that the SUV had in fact been taken by Sachin Vaze three months earlier.
Sachin Vaze was arrested on March 13. The dotted line from him to the state’s Home Minister has been drawn by the former top cop of Mumbai, Param Bir Singh. Anil Deskhmukh’s party says the conspiracy alleged by Param Bir Singh is vendetta for his being removed from office; Param Bir Singh has on the other hand said he tried to alert the government to Sachin Vaze’s misdeeds and was steadfastly ignored; he has also petitioned the Bombay High Court to investigate Anil Deshmukh.
When the scandal first arrived, Sharad Pawar acknowledged that the charges against Anil Deshmukh were serious and deemed it appropriate for Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to commission an inquiry against the Home Minister. But a day later, Mr Pawar’s party rolled back that stand to declare that its leader, Anil Deshmukh, would not resign. Param Bir Singh’s story was full of holes, it said.
For Chief Minister Thackeray, who is head of the Shiv Sena, the timing of Vaze-gate is inimical. Covid cases have sprinted upwards, forcing a night curfew across the state; a lockdown is under consideration. In the one-and-a-half-year history of his government, in handling a spurt of crises, many caused by the friction within the ruling alliance, he has relied on the close working relationship he has with Sharad Pawar.
Which is why the 80-year-old’s dinner meeting with Amit Shah has everyone so riled up. Mr Shah yesterday, when asked if the meeting took place, said, “Not everything is for public consumption.” The BJP leader is no doubt well aware of the singular advantage of implying that the meeting did in fact happen, even as Sharad Pawar’s team issues denials. The fire has been fuelled.
Nor is the Sena innocent of trying to advance its own agenda. In an article for the party’s newsmagazine, “Saamana”, Sanjay Raut on Sunday took down Anil Deshmukh as “an accidental Home Minister”, chosen for the job after others in his party turned it down.
If the Ahmedabad dinner was fact and not fiction, the BJP and Sharad Pawar gain – the former progressing with its efforts to pry open the Maharashtra alliance, the latter by portraying that if pressed too hard, he can switch teams. And if the dinner was no more than yarn-spinning, the party it hurts the most is still the Sena. Nothing lazy about this trick.