At this high-stakes table sit the BJP, the NCP, the Congress party and the Shiv Sena as the Pune municipal corporation goes to polls in February 2022. (Arvind Kharat/HT FILE PHOTO)
At this high-stakes table sit the BJP, the NCP, the Congress party and the Shiv Sena as the Pune municipal corporation goes to polls in February 2022. (Arvind Kharat/HT FILE PHOTO)

In my opinion: Why BJP must redraw its pre-poll strategy in Pune

The takeaway from this particular “game” for the BJP must be Ajit Pawar’s quote, responding to a media query on his “strange” call (to say the least): “Whatever I did, I did it openly. I crossed over and came back. Now, I am firmly in the saddle here (MVA/NCP)
By Roopesh Raj
UPDATED ON SEP 15, 2021 04:14 PM IST

In poker, the long-standing rule of thumb is, don’t play the cards, play the person. The analogy between poker and the political situation in Pune is primarily because a high-stakes game will unfold in February 2022, the Pune municipal corporation, now the biggest by area in Maharashtra, goes to the polls. Between now and e-day, politics will turn into astute game play as parties in the fray for dominance in Pune’s civic body begin to parlay – take their political good fortune and raise the stakes with “all-in” calls - to win the right to have the power to decide Pune’s future, or as Pune’s activist denizens would phrase it, to win the right to be entrusted to do the best for Pune’s future.

At this high-stakes table sit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), the Congress party and the Shiv Sena. There are the “inside-outers” – players in the know with perhaps just enough of political clout to upset the odds. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), for example.

In early game play, watching from the sidelines and negotiating endless quotes about “plans to make Pune a smart city” and “ensure the pandemic is beaten” – every move now is either a bet, a call, or a fold, depending on the issue at hand, with only one focus – making it to the final table (election day) with an unbeatable chip stack (political capital).

At the table today are the NCP’s Ajit Pawar, the BJP’s Chandrakant Patil (why not the BJP’s MP from Pune Girish Bapat is for another day), and the Congress. The Congress, like the party at the national level, has been questioned by political experts for “playing” without a “powerful front” to reckon with. The trickle-down effect is evident in Pune as well. Ramesh Bagwe then takes the seat for the Congress.

The Shiv Sena at the moment is backing the NCP’s hand, though individually, a challenge may emerge as the stakes get higher and the game gets deeper.

Like in poker, do not play the cards dealt. Play the opponent.

The NCP is making all the huge bluffs – the kind that puts social media in a frenzy - repeatedly going all in, in what seems to be crazy play at the time, only to have the BJP back down, or fold (to keep the poker parlance in play).

Amazingly, the chip count at the end of each game is stacking up nicely for the Pawars.

The long bet – making a play very early in the game so as to impact the eventual outcome – was Ajit Pawar’s Game of Thrones (metaphor taken from a blockbuster series) move at the time of the state elections in 2019.

Cards in play? BJP wins 105 seats, NCP wins 54, Congress wins 44 and the Shiv Sena, 56.

The bluff. Ajit Pawar joins hands with the then BJP chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and is announced as his deputy, after an early morning swearing-in ceremony.

The fold. BJP-Ajit Pawar government lasts 80 hours. Pawar goes back into the NCP and is named cabinet minister in the Shiv Sena-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) which forms the state government, along with the Congress.

The takeaway from this particular “game” for the BJP must be Pawar’s quote, responding to a media query on his “strange” call (to say the least): “Whatever I did, I did it openly. I crossed over and came back. Now, I am firmly in the saddle here (MVA/NCP).”

A year later, the NCP and BJP, which is the ruling party in the PMC currently, face off again… a high stakes game, now with the civic elections looming.

Cards in play? The BJP-led PMC’s plan to lease out amenity spaces in the city to raise funds for the civic body, post the vast Covid expenditure and loss of income. The bluff. As the issue goes to the general body meeting for a final decision, much dust has been raised by the NCP in the build-up–primarily, the story-line that the BJP is “selling” the city to raise funds; the BJP counter, the money raised will save the city. Vandana Chavan, senior NCP leader and Rajya Sabha member from Pune, announces the NCP will NOT oppose the proposal, as earlier planned. Cue, shock and raised eye-brows, all emojis of course, of the general public.

The fold. On the day of the GB with the BJP all set to push the proposal through, “winning” with an ambitious proposal, the NCP plays its hand – withdraws support. Caught flat, the BJP cancels the GB meet to postpone a decision on the proposal.

The gallery view on both these plays suggests that the explanations: Ajit Pawar rebelled and then was won back; and the BJP promised to make changes to the proposal requested by Chavan and then did not, seems a little too convenient. In politics, if it’s too simple, it definitely is not.

The idea that the NCP is in total chaos and has no strategy or communication, is perhaps the other “go-to” that the wily old Pawar, i.e. Pawar senior, AKA Sharad dada, wants to send to all players at the table.

Regarding exposure to the happenings both on and off the table, it is believed that the BJP got played… badly.

Because, for the gallery (voting public), at the end of the above two “games”, the NCP seems to have come out as winners – Ajit Pawar as deputy CM and leasing of amenity spaces on hold.

From here on in, momentum, that famous word to capture the “air”, the “vibe” the “feeling”, is all about not losing any; at least for the NCP.

For the BJP, keep an eye on the cards dealt, yes, by all means, but, remember, play the player.

Note: Poker is a card game involving skill. The writer in no way supports, advocates or propagates its playing as, like the PMC elections, money is involved and the costs are dangerously high. .

Roopesh Raj can be contacted at roopesh.raj@htlive.com

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