The Rehabilitation of Narayan Rane

Out of action for long, the former Maharashtra CM had no option but to willy-nilly catch hold of any straw that came his way and accept BJP's Rajya Sabha offer.

It has been a climbdown to say the least. Narayan Rane, the once powerful chief minister of Maharashtra, has at last been forced to settle for a Rajya Sabha nomination from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a sort of a long overdue political rehabilitation.

The ruling BJP had promised him a Cabinet post in the Maharashtra government to spite its sulking ally, Shiv Sena, but failed to do so despite Rane breaking away from the Congress some six months back.

Just as many in the BJP, including Subramanian Swamy, had reservations of the recent entry of Naresh Agarwal into the party after he was denied renomination in the Rajya Sabha by the Samajwadi Party,  many had similar reservations with the party doing business with Rane.

This is specially true of BJP leaders in Maharashtra given the 65-year-old leader’s controversial past, which was detailed by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis in the state legislature some two years ago to blunt Rane’s attack on his government. Rane was then a leading light of the Congress and never hid his ambition of becoming chief minister again. Without naming anyone, Fadnavis had spoken of cases lodged in a Mumbai police station a few decades ago.

Rane’s rise in Maharashtra’s politics has been nothing short of a Bollywood script. He rose from a street fighter to chief minister heading the Shiv Sena-BJP government for eight months from February 1999, replacing the suave Manohar Joshi, thanks to the blessings of Sena founder, late Bal Thackeray.

There was no looking back since Rane joined Shiv Sena in the 1960s. He ended up as a shakha pramukh, swiftly moving up the party’s ranks. First, he became a municipal corporator, then an MLA, a minister and finally the chief minister.

Reports quoting unnamed sources had last year spoken of Rane becoming  wary of the Enforcement Directorate (ED) probe into money laundering allegations. BJP MP Kirit Somaiya had, on November 12, 2016, written to Satyabrata Kumar, ED joint director, seeking an investigation into companies run by Rane and his family.

Speculation over Rane planning to join the BJP has been rife for a year after reports that he and Fadnavis had a meeting with BJP chief Amit Shah in Ahmedabad. Marathi TV channels had shown visuals outside Shah’s residence but Rane had denied any such meeting, saying the tapes could have been doctored. He had, however, admitted that he was in Ahmedabad at that time.

As events unfurled later, Operation Rane was part of Shah’s plans of a “Congress Mukt Bharat” in Maharashtra with the BJP central leadership feeling that the former chief minister could help it make deep inroads in his native Konkan region, which had always been a weak spot for the saffron party.

In fact, the BJP managers were in touch with everybody who is anybody in the opposition in Maharashtra since the Fadnavis government took over as part of a strategy to avert any surprise from sulking ally Shiv Sena. Rane was bound to be their top priority.

But the developments in Maharashtra’s political scene in the past few months may end up with Shiv Sena having the last laugh on ‘la affaire Rane’ given the fact that Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray ensured that the former chief minister was not inducted into the BJP and was virtually forced to float a regional outfit, the Maharashtra Swabhimani Paksh.

A section within the BJP, too, had conveyed to the leadership the perils of  Rane’s entry into the party.

It has been a double whammy for Rane as BJP and Shah have in a way shifted his base to New Delhi in the wake of the Sena’s reported threats that his induction in the state cabinet would be seen as an “unfriendly” act. If talk in political circles is to be believed, the Sena has actually helped the chief minister who also had reservations on including a strong leader like Rane in his cabinet.

With Rane contesting as a BJP candidate in the Rajya Sabha polls, Sena leaders have been quick to take a dig at their friend-turned-foe wondering as to when he joined the ruling party. Rane parted ways with Sena in 2005 following differences with Uddhav Thackeray and joined the Congress where he remained a ‘restless’ man as the reported assurance to make him chief minister was not honoured.

Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray ensured that Narayan Rane was not inducted into the BJP and was forced to float a regional outfit, the Maharashtra Swabhimani Paksh. Credit: PTI

A few days ago, when Rane had hinted that he was uncertain whether to accept BJP’s offer, a Sena leader had remarked: “Has Rane any other option than accepting the Rajya Sabha offer?” The message conveyed was that Rane, out of action for long, was no longer the chooser and would have to willy-nilly catch hold of any straw that comes his way to remain afloat.

The entire Rane episode reflects the story of how BJP under Shah, out to expand its growing footprint, works. It is no wonder that Maharashtra Pradesh Congress chief Ashok Chavan has dubbed the BJP as the “biggest trading corporation in the country”.

Right or wrong, it is said that Shah knows pretty well how the stock market operates and, therefore, his moves often reflect ways and means to keep BJP’s political sensex up. Whether this is done by fair or foul means is for everyone to judge, but the fact is that Shah has not struck a jackpot everywhere.

While Himanta Biswa Sarma who was sulking in the Congress in Assam became an asset for the BJP despite the controversies surrounding him, former chief minister Shanker Sinh Vaghela turned out to be a dud in Gujarat,  the home turf of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

With the bypoll verdicts in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar stunning the BJP, questions are bound to crop up in the ruling party on taking on board leaders like Rane. Already there are murmurs over the way Naresh Agarwal was taken into the party days after being denied a Rajya Sabha renomination by Samajwadi Party.

Rane’s innings in Delhi is unlikely to cause much stir in Maharashtra as his Rajya Sabha tenure begins at a time when the political clock is ticking away for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and Modi and Shah are likely to be confronted by many questions within the party.

It is still unclear what the BJP’s deal for Rane is, as the former chief minister has not been on a strong wicket following two successive defeats in the Assembly polls – from his native area Kudal and from Bandra in a bypoll in the Mumbai suburb. His son Nilesh, too, lost the Lok Sabha elections, while his other son Nitesh is a Congress MLA.

The outspoken Rane, who has become his own enemy after his frequent diatribes against Congress leaders when he was in the grand old party, now has enough time to introspect on his future course. After all, politics is a game of patience.

Sunil Gatade is a senior journalist