The Telegraph
Sunday , October 10 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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The big fight

The joke had already done the cell phone circuit — but the crowd still tittered appreciatively when Sharad Pawar narrated it at a public meeting in Pune. It was not the punch line — “What happened when Suresh Kalmadi tried to hang himself from the ceiling? The ceiling came down!” — that tickled them though. Funnier still was the fact that two men, once seen as Siamese twins, were coming apart at the seams.

Quarrels are commonplace in state politics — Mamata Banerjee, for instance, has been feuding with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee for long in West Bengal, and C.P. Thakur has just thumbed his nose at bκte noire Sushil Modi in Bihar. But a quiet tiff has been gaining ground in Maharashtra: Kalmadi and Pawar have been blowing hot and cold.

“It is a love-hate relationship, riddled with contradictions,” says D.P. Tripathi, general secretary of Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The contradictions are personal and political. “Kalmadi cannot wish away Pawar but neither can he survive without his help because the NCP has a mass base in western Maharashtra, which includes Kalmadi’s constituency, Pune. Yet Kalmadi has to fight Pawar, else he will lose his clout in the Congress,” holds Tripathi. His observation is supported by a Maharashtra Congressman who remarks sotto voce, “Kalmadi’s anti-Pawar postures are liked by the high command.”

Last week, Pawar was absent at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games (CWG), Kalmadi’s baby, pointing at another rift. Rumour had it that Kalmadi had asked the Board of Control for Cricket in India — read Pawar — for Rs 100 crore for the Games, which had been turned down. Since then, the erstwhile guru and shishya have been turning away from each other.

“Kalmadi is smarter than Pawar in many worldly matters,” says BJP Rajya Sabha member Prakash Javadekar, who witnessed Kalmadi’s rise as a Pune resident. Javadekar holds that Pawar picked him because he needed someone to negotiate the treacherous alleyways of Delhi’s politicalscape when he wanted to fly the Maharashtra nest. “Kalmadi spoke English fluently, had good social networking skills and, above all, was a smart lobbyist. He fitted in with the profile a provincial leader like Pawar was looking for,” he says.

Not surprisingly, when Pawar’s daughter got married in 1992, Kalmadi was among the few who wore a pheta — a colourful turban in the Maharashtrian style — from the bride’s side. But then, Pawar was once Kalmadi’s guru, steering his rise in politics and business.

It all started at the Pune Coffee House in 1974 when Kalmadi, after his stint as a pilot with the Indian Air Force, sought to enter the hotel business where the boys from Udupi — he is from that Karnataka region though he grew up in Pune — were minting money. So he bought a stake in the coffee house and sat at the cash till. Soon, he was making powerful friends. Among them was Pawar.

Pawar was then emerging as the heir apparent to Yashwantrao Chavan, the veteran Congressman from western Maharashtra. In 1977, Pawar helped appoint Kalmadi as the president of the Youth Congress in Pune. Kalmadi, who had also acquired a dealership for Hindustan Petroleum, had just started finding his feet in politics when Pawar left the Congress to form the Congress (S). So Kalmadi started focusing on sports, helming premier sports organisations — first in Pune and eventually at the national level.

Pawar left the Congress, rejoined it, and left it again, but the friendship between him and Kalmadi continued. The former made his political strides, while the latter kept climbing up the business ladder, with help from Pawar. Soon, Kalmadi had the Maruti dealership in Pune — and has not looked back financially since then.

The two have fallen apart on earlier occasions, and their partings are never irrevocable. But this time, political observers are watching with glee as the cold war escalates. When Parliament debated the Games in the monsoon session, Pawar sat through the discussion but inconspicuously in a back row. He kept track of Kalmadi — asking Congressmen from Maharashtra when Kalmadi was slated to speak.

Pawar backers are convinced that when an anti-Indian Premier League (IPL) campaign was gaining ground this summer, Kalmadi was a part of it. Kalmadi loyalists, on the other hand, believe that Pawar instigated the Maharashtra media against him. Was this an IPL-CWG face-off playing out publicly?

“Their interests converge on a number of things. They quarrel and come together,” says Ulhas Pawar, a state legislative council member from Pune.

In 1991, they went hand in hand. After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, Pawar, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Arjun Singh and Shankar Dayal Sharma began jousting for the prime ministerial sweepstakes. Kalmadi mobilised support for Pawar, and some believe he even gathered hefty sums for the campaign. He organised a dinner in a 5-star hotel for the Congress’s new MPs. As many as 64 showed up. A shaken Rao blackballed Kalmadi’s guests during his tenure from any sphere of influence.

Some say that it was Kalmadi’s unsuccessful attempts at promoting Pawar that infuriated the Maharashtra strongman. Others say they fell apart over Pawar’s protege and nephew, Ajit Pawar. Ajit and Kalmadi have a running battle for the Pune turf. Ajit’s NCP has already wrested the Pune Municipal Corporation from Kalmadi and the Congress.

Many believe that Ajit has always tried to undermine Kalmadi’s influence in the powerful corporation. “He had a free hand in running it. The result was in five years the Congress’s strength declined from 69 to 39 members,” says Ulhas Pawar.

But the Pawar-Kalmadi relation took an upward swing in the 2009 election. Pawar is said to have even dragged Ajit to dinner at Kalmadi’s house. Pawar campaigned over six days for Kalmadi when he contested the Pune Lok Sabha seat. “Normally Pawar gives only one day to Pune. This time, he made an emotional appeal to his supporters to make Kalmadi win. Kalmadi won but only because Raj Thackeray’s candidate cut into the BJP-Shiv Sena’s votes,” recalls Mohan Joshi, a Pune-based member of the legislative council.

But there has been a turnaround again, with Kalmadi finding himself cornered over the CWG. As widespread reports of corruption and inefficiency gathered momentum, Pawar — a shrewd politician conscious of his image — decided to maintain a safe distance from his old buddy. In Pune, the media attacked a series of Kalmadi events — including a folk dance by lissom women in the Pune Congress House, with portraits of M.K. Gandhi and other Congress leaders looking on. “The only reason I am not leaving the Congress is because of my surname,” says Anant Gadgil, son of late Congress leader V.N. Gadgil.

The mutually reassuring relationship that lasted a good 30 years with frequent fissures may finally be giving away. But then, there are no permanent foes — or friends — in politics.

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