When Narayan Rane was about to quit the Shiv Sena after a fruitful career of 40 years in the party, Bal Thackeray expressed his hurt to my then editor-in-chief Vir Sanghvi. Of course, Bal Thackeray being who he was said, “I only (sic) have kicked him out of my party. I have no need for Jaichands like him.’’
Thackeray was hurt by the fact that, unlike with Chhagan Bhujbal, he had given Rane everything — as he put it, the Sena had kept him in the trappings of office, whether in government or in opposition, for 40 years. “When we did not have a laal batti (an official car with a red beacon) to give him any more, he went and joined the Congress.’’
But Rane took a long time making up his mind which ruling party to join — the Congress or the NCP. Sharad Pawar was then wooing a lot of leaders from the Shiv Sena and he offered Rane a position equal to all others in the party but not a cabinet berth as the NCP had run out of its quota in the coalition government. Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was then the chief minister, however, had the decisive argument. He told Rane that one day the NCP would merge with the Congress and then he would be one of many NCP leaders seeking adjustments with the party. “But if you join us now, you will not only be made a minister — when the NCP merges with the Congress, you will be senior to them and among the tallest leaders of our party.’’
But some years later, Vilasrao was pretty hurt at Rane’s attempts to destabilise him from his position and their relationship went steadily downhill. Rane, of course, always wanted to be chief minister and it is no secret he thought he could take on his party resident Sonia Gandhi for choosing Ashok Chavan over him when Deshmukh resigned after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. He was suspended but the suspension was revoked in double quick time. Rane was given another position in the government as though nothing had happened. Former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan trusted Rane to troubleshoot for him through his term and Rane was also the man who was tasked with resolving the troublesome Maratha reservation issue in 2014. When he lost two assembly elections in a row, the Congress overruled the claims of other leaders and had him elected to the Maharashtra Legislative Council — in fact, like Bal Thackeray, gave him everything they could.
But, strangely, now there is much indifference in the Congress at the prospect of Rane’s imminent exit from their party. Senior party leaders have told me that there will be not much change in the Congress’s fortunes were he to quit. Though he did win the civic polls in his constituency this February, perhaps it will be a very long time before either the Congress or Rane are in a position to do better for each other than they already have.
But why the Congress is not bothered about this imminent exit of a strong leader from their party is also because, as a former PCC leader told me, “He could never cast himself in the mould of the Congress and always stuck out like a sore thumb.’’
So why is it taking so long for Rane to make up his mind about joining the BJP? He has said he has an offer but he has said neither a yes nor a no. I am told by unimpeachable sources that chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is not very keen on carrying the burden of a heavy weight leader like Rane and that the BJP really has nothing more than crumbs to offer to the man who still wants to be chief minister of the state once again.
Moreover, there are taller leaders in the state BJP — or at least old time entrenched ones — who have better claims to party handouts than a new comer. Then again, as one former CM told me, “The BJP’s aim is not to acquire Rane per se but rather to break and weaken the Congress any which way and they are starting with Rane by playing on his vulnerabilities.’’
The Congress knows they can do little about it — the BJP has enough strength in the assembly to have him elected on their ticket to the legislative council again and his son, too, could easily win his assembly seat. So the Congress is not even trying to dissuade the man they once persuaded so hard to join their party. Perhaps Rane is better off going with the BJP — whenever he has made up his mind, that is.