Amit Shah's statement that "not everything can be made public" is being interpreted as affirmation of the fact that on Saturday night, he met Sharad Pawar for dinner at the home of a billionaire in Gujarat.
Along with Pawar, who is 80, his deputy, Praful Patel, was also reportedly at the dinner diplomacy event.
Sources say that the police in Ahmedabad had been asked not to register the movements or make special arrangements for the Home Minister as he drove to the host's mansion. Your columnist can confirm that the meeting took place. Pawar's party denied it before Shah offered his comment. The menu was vegetarian. Pawar and his deputy reached the venue about 45 minutes before Shah interacted with their host, known for his proximity to PM Modi and Shah.
The dinner comes in the midst of raging political hormones in Maharashtra where Pawar's man, Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, has been accused of corruption by the former police chief of Mumbai. The controversy threatens the Maharashtra government, which comprises an alliance of the Shiv Sena, the Congress and Pawar's party.
The scandal began with the discovery of an SUV, containing gelatin sticks, ingredients for explosives, parked near the home of Reliance top boss Mukesh Ambani. Within days, the owner of the SUV was found dead in a creek. All this is now being pinned on controversial cop, Sachin Vaze, who had been ordered to collect 100 crores every month from businesses via extortion, the former police chief, Param Bir Singh, has alleged (he has also filed a court case demanding an investigation against the Home Minister). Meanwhile, Deshmukh has denied the allegations and Pawar's party has said there is no need for him to resign. But Vaze has been arrested and the case is being handled by the country's top anti-terror agency.
As these developments were blaring through Maharashtra, it was Pawar whose rich reserves of political experience kept the government on an even keel, assuaging allies and fortifying the government against the attack by the opposition BJP.
Which is why the meeting with Amit Shah is such a wobbler for those who felt Pawar had managed to downgrade the emergency for the Maharashtra government from Code Red to Amber. Modi has made no secret of his close equation with Pawar, who regularly meets with him at parliament when it is in session. A few years ago, Modi in a public speech described Pawar as his "political guru".
Pawar is famous for keeping his options open - even after he has committed his support to a party or a particular government. When the Maharashtra crisis began, he said Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had reason to order an inquiry against the Home Minister because the charges were serious; a day later, however, his party firmly declared that Deshmukh would not quit. As the BJP went into the full attack mode, Pawar reportedly counselled the Chief Minister not to concede an inch. Pawar is learnt to have said, "In the UPA the Congress had a bad habit of forcing resignations when the BJP demanded them. The BJP never makes any one resign. Let us not give an inch, or they will torch our government".
The allies followed his advice. The spook seemed less scary. So why the dinner with Shah, then? Because Pawar operates at many levels and the Gujarat meal sends a strong message to his allies: Yes, it may be his party that has made them vulnerable, but he has options and can engage the affections of the BJP as an eager suitor. The Shah meeting makes it clear that in the Maharashtra alliance, it is Pawar that is the king: the Congress is a washout; Thackeray cannot reunite with the BJP whom he dumped to form the current alliance; but Pawar has no such impediments. It's vintage power play, Pawar-style.
Pawar's signalling comes also as Sanjay Raut, Sena leader, wrote in a stinging editorial in the Sena mouthpiece that Deshmukh is an "accidental Home Minister". The Sena and Congress want to move towards dropping Deshmukh as Home Minister, though not immediately, since that would be seen as giving in to the BJP's demands. After Pawar's dinner with Shah, Raut was ticked off and warned not to play "spoilsport" - this was done publicly by Pawar's nephew, Ajit Pawar, who said the Maharashtra government is "working well".
Clearly the Maharashtra government does not believe in TMI - Too Much Information - with its frequent squabbles erupting in sound bites to the press.
Pawar is keen to replace Sonia Gandhi as the UPA chairperson and revive what is fast turning into a defunct national opposition to the BJP. Pawar believes that this is possible only with a collective of regional parties since the Congress is dealing with its own implosion over whether it should continue to be led by the Gandhis.
Expect to see a series of big political moves after May 2 when the results will be announced from four big states and a Union territory. If the Congress performs badly in Assam and Kerala, where the Gandhi siblings have campaigned extensively, it'll be knives out not just in the Congress but across the opposition spectrum. A senior Congress leader told me, "We are keenly missing Ahmed Patel who was the single-point negotiator with Pawar. In his absence, it is Kamal Nath, but these days, Pawar is behaving like Lord Shiva: he is both the creator (of the Maharashtra government) and the destroyer (feelers to the BJP)."
The Ahmedabad dinner has been served up as a teachable moment - not just by Pawar but also Shah, who has cleverly acknowledged the session to wobble the Maharashtra government. May will be hot - and anything but sleepy.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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