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Chavan’s power of silence

During the Lok Sabha polls earlier this year, I was invited to travel with Ashok Chavan from Bombay to Nanded. Congress functionaries had, until then, been unable to decide on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the state, writes Sujata Anandan.

mumbai Updated: Oct 28, 2009 01:35 IST
Sujata Anandan

During the Lok Sabha polls earlier this year, I was invited to travel with Ashok Chavan from Bombay to Nanded. Congress functionaries had, until then, been unable to decide on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to the state. Singh had just recovered from a major heart surgery and with polls happening in the scorching summer months, Congressmen were worried about the effect it could have on the PM’s health.

As the aircraft taxied for a take-off, Chavan got his secretary to call the All India Congress Committee in New Delhi. He asked for possible dates, picked one, decided the timing of the flight the PM should take (not too early, not too late), chose a hotel close to the airport to avoid unnecessary extra travel and decisively told the campaign managers that Singh would meet the city’s business community first and the media later.

“He will then rest a while after lunch in his suite upstairs and we will fly him to Aurangabad only at 5pm — the sun will be going down by then and it will be cool when he addresses the public meeting there. He can fly back to Delhi the same evening.’’

Then, before switching off, he instructed the secretary to call a Maharashta Pradesh functionary to make sure the hotel near the airport had the rooms and suites for the PM. “I will check in two hours after landing.”

It took just those five minutes of planning and two hours of flying for everything to fall into place. The PM arrived just at the time Chavan had set and everything went as per plan. But at the meeting, I noticed, Chavan was content to just sit quietly beside the PM. It was Kripashankar Singh, the Bombay Congress chief and Manikrao Thakre, the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress president, who were allowed to hog the limelight at that event even though they had been unable to pull the dates together.

Over the next few months, I became more familiar with Chavan’s style of functioning: lack of patience with uncertainties and waffling by bureaucrats or party functionaries, the confidence to take swift decisions, the courage of his own convictions (to the extent he is unafraid of telling bureaucrats what to do and how to do it) and the ability to look for solutions instead of simply sitting on the problems as many Chief Ministers before him have done.

But the quality that I have really appreciated during his tenure as CM is that he is content to remain in the background while quietly going about his business (as in the case of the PM’s programme in April). However, I do not believe Chavan is self-effacing at all. And he is certainly not worthy of Uddhav Thackeray’s curled-nose kind of contempt for his relative invisibility. During the Assembly campaign, Uddhav had ridiculed Chavan saying, “Does anybody know who the Chief Minister of Maharashtra is? Does he have a face? Is anybody aware of what he’s up to?’’

I guess the voters were aware: or else the Congress would not have posted such good results. But I also believe Chavan’s relative invisibility went a long way in off-setting the anti-incumbency that should have kicked in after ten years of a Congress-NCP government and particularly after the fiasco of 26/11 — not just the terror attacks per se but also the callous terror tourism of Ramgopal Verma that people still react to with horror.

That singular incident might have been responsible for Vilasrao Deshmukh being edged out by Chavan in the race to the CM’s post last week (it would be worthwhile to mention here that Deshmukh’s contribution to the campaign and Congress victory was also considerable).

So Uddhav, in a very public battle with cousin Raj that has proved detrimental to his own interests (which, sooner or later, will to Raj’s as well), ought to draw lessons from the Chavan-Deshmukh example: you do not have to be actually seen to be really heard. And there’s much to be said for the virtues of quiet accomplishment.