How Sonia saved this govt


By Sudhir Suryawanshi

On November 23, after Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar were sworn in as the chief minister and deputy chief minister, respectively, many NCP legislators who were present at Raj Bhavan rushed to meet Sharad Pawar at Silver Oak. However, there were some who did not. The BJP had seven private jets waiting at the airport to fly out the 38 NCP legislators who were expected to arrive straight from Raj Bhavan. Eventually, only one aircraft flew out four legislators from Mumbai to New Delhi. The legislators would be kept at The Oberoi, a five-star luxury hotel in Gurgaon, located in Haryana, where the BJP’s Manohar Lal Khattar was in power. These four legislators were Daulat Daroda, Zirwal Narhari Sitaram, Nitin Pawar and Anil Patil.

Sharad Pawar was restless to get back his legislators on time. It was an issue of prestige, credibility and ability. At the same time, Amit Shah was ready to wrestle the NCP to keep the legislators in his custody. Pawar shared the details of the four missing legislators with the NCP youth wing president, Dheeraj Sharma, who originally belonged to Haryana, to find out the whereabouts of these legislators and, if possible, chart out a rescue plan.

Dheeraj Sharma was in Pune for some work, and he forwarded the details of the four missing legislators to Sonia Doohan, the national president of the party’s student wing. Twenty-eight-yearold Doohan is a political science student at Kurukshetra University in Haryana, and she was, at that time, in Gurgaon, all set to leave with her siblings for a wedding ceremony to the city of Jaipur in Rajasthan. An urgent message from her party leader forced her to cancel the wedding plans.

Doohan immediately dialled the numbers of a few contacts. She learnt that the NCP legislators were in a Gurgaon hotel. She was also told that they were being allegedly guarded by a police force and some BJP workers. She managed to find out the room numbers of these NCP legislators. Dheeraj Sharma told Doohan to prepare a ‘rescue’ plan with her team. Meanwhile, he would be flying to Delhi and would be in Gurgaon soon. About 180 were chosen for this highly secret ‘rescue’ plan.

A majority of the team members consisted of women from a local area to ensure secrecy. They would have to deal with not only the hotel but also the BJP government and its machinery. A huge risk was involved. But Sonia Doohan was a true Haryanvi in spirit. Having spent her childhood in the countryside, she was tough in her attitude and took this as a challenge to prove her leadership to her seniors and help them in difficult times. Sonia had been fascinated by Sharad Pawar and his politics since her childhood.

She admired his political acumen. For someone unfamiliar with the layout of the hotel, it could seem like a labyrinth. It was especially difficult to get acquainted with the numerous entry and exit points. The legislators were holed up in rooms on the fifth floor. There were restaurants on the ground floor. However, the entrances to the main hotel and to the restaurants were separate. Here, Doohan had an advantage. The hotel was located just three km from her residence, and she was familiar with the hotel’s layout. “I formed a team of women and told them that they were going for an important assignment. Once I entered the hotel, I shared the details about the operation,” said Sonia to this author. She further said, “When I entered the hotel, on the ground floor, more than 100 people were sitting in a group. They were wearing kurta and pyjama. It was drawing attention in the posh five-star hotel. That convinced me that whatever I had learnt from my sources was correct.”

Doohan also noticed that a senior BJP leader from Gurgaon, a senior police officer and a police inspector were also present. “I knew this police officer and even the inspector quite well because of my political activities. I called the officer immediately and asked him, ‘Bhai kahaan hai [Where are you, brother]?’ He replied, ‘Sister, I am here only, tell me why you called, any work?’” She then asked him what exactly was happening at the hotel. He was taken aback by her question and said, “Do not ask me, I will not help you in this matter. But this work is related to you only.”

Sonia called Dheeraj Sharma and confirmed the location of the NCP legislators. Sharma reported the same to Sharad Pawar, who told him, “I knew our people are there but have you identified them and their exact locations?” Sharma immediately replied, “Yes, they are in our area only. If they are hostages, then we can easily rescue them. But if something untoward happens, then you will need to take care of it and we would need full party support for this operation.” Pawar told him to proceed but with certain precautions. The NCP legislators were staying on the fifth floor of the hotel.

Doohan said, “We tried to book a room on the fifth floor, but we were told that all the rooms on that floor were already booked. Then we booked four rooms on different floors; the tariff for these was Rs 20,000 a night.” Once Sonia and her team were inside the hotel, they hatched three plans to rescue their party legislators. “We took the manager of the hotel into confidence and requested him to help. He was afraid and said he could lose his job. I assured him that even if he lost his job, he would be given a job in Mumbai at any five-star hotel of his choice. It would be better than this.” The manager came on board.

The manager shared the layout of the hotel in which the points of entrance and exit were visible. He pointed out the exit at the back of the hotel that was primarily used by the owner of the hotel and the main staff. Importantly, this exit had no CCTV cameras installed. This exit was also connected to another adjoining hotel, The Trident. It was one property with two different hotels connected by a passageway. The manager suggested that they take these legislators through the secret exit and lodge them in the adjoining hotel for a few minutes. Then they could be taken outside in vehicles that would be parked and ready for them in the Trident.

The other plan was to bring these four legislators down to the swimming pool of the hotel and lead them out through an inside route. The last plan was to directly go into these legislators’ rooms and somehow manage to escort them out of the resort. “If the BJP people and administration scuffled with them, then we would have to fight. The women of the team would then be at the forefront. No female constable was present. If they wanted to arrest the women, a female constable would have to be called in. That would take at least 10 to 15 minutes or more, which would be a wide enough gap for other teams to rush to the rooms and whisk them out. The designated team for the third plan was waiting in a car outside the hotel. The work had been divided, but we decided that the third plan would be used only as a last resort. No fight and ruckus in the beginning,” said Doohan. She added, “We were already present in the hotel and Dheeraj Sharma had also reached Delhi and joined us.” The legislators who were camped in The Oberoi had had their phones snatched away and had been given smaller handsets. They were allowed to speak with only their families. “We had their photographs so we identified them easily. All of them were kept in different rooms on the fifth floor of the same hotel. It was very difficult to connect with them. Their phones had been taken away by the BJP people and the police, who were inside the hotel. Only after checking the authenticity of a call was it given to these legislators,” said Sonia.

A member of the NCP student wing asked the laundry-in-charge to call one of the legislators, to say his clothes would take time to clean and iron and whether he was okay with it. The laundry guy of the hotel called Anil Bhaidas Patil, and someone else, probably a BJP worker, picked up the phone. Upon hearing that it was the laundry person, the call was given to Anil Patil. The laundry guy as per the instructions of the NCP student leaders informed him about his ‘clothes’ after which Patil was told that ‘Ajit Dada’ had sent some people inside the hotel and that they were no longer going ahead with the BJP.

Earlier, these four legislators had not responded to the hints of Doohan’s team. So another team decided to use ‘Ajit Dada’s’ name deliberately. The laundry guy murmured to Anil Patil that the plan had changed and that it should not be disclosed to anyone in the hotel. He was also told to be prepared for a rescue operation. After hearing ‘Ajit Dada’s’ name, Patil was sure that something serious must have happened. They were ready to come out. He also informed the other three legislators about this plan. He spoke with them in Marathi, so the Hindi-speaking personnel guarding them could not understand the plan. However, the problem was that the entire fifth floor was full of security and BJP workers. It was difficult to bypass them and enter the rooms of the legislators.

At one point in time, the BJP workers were shuffling out — a fresh batch of people were coming in to probably relieve the people in the first shift from their duty on the fifth floor. Some of them were also going for dinner. This exchange provided a window of just a few minutes around 9 pm, and Sonia and her team decided to use this time to swiftly execute the rescue operation.

The laundry man called all four legislators in their rooms via the intercom. They were told that all of them had been summoned to appear near the swimming pool within the next two minutes. Anil Bhaidas Patil and Daulat Daroda said something to the BJP people and courageously rushed towards the swimming pool of the hotel. Sonia was monitoring the sensitive operation. She immediately took the elevators and rushed towards the swimming pool herself where both Patil and Daroda were waiting in the corner. Sonia did not know any of them personally, but she uttered her party’s name like a code of sorts. “NCP,” she said, and immediately both Patil and Daroda replied, “Yes, yes, NCP.” Dheeraj Sharma was on his way to the hotel’s exit at the back with his vehicle to pick up these legislators.

Sonia also needed to get her vehicle before leaving the hotel. After confirming with the NCP legislators, she rushed to pick up her car. She handed over the key to her car to the receptionist and asked the person to get the car out immediately. “I then saw the BJP Gurgaon president, Bhupinder Chauhan, along with his people, so I decided to go back to the elevator to hide. The BJP people would have recognised me so I decided to keep myself away from them. The elevator was the only option,” said Sonia.

She asked the two legislators, Patil and Daroda, to remain silent. For a few minutes they suspected that she was from the BJP. “I again assured them, ‘NCP, NCP, saheb.’” They ultimately realised they were in safe hands. By that time the BJP workers who were guarding the legislators had come down from the fifth floor and had started shouting, “Vidhayak chale gaye, vidhayak chale gaye [the legislators are gone]!” Dheeraj Sharma’s team had to engage in a scuffle with the BJP people on the fifth floor. Doohan went back to the poolside and told Patil and Daroda, “Bhago, red colour ki car bahar raah dekh raaha hai [Run fast, a red-coloured car is waiting for you outside].” Dheeraj Sharma was already waiting at the rear exit of the hotel. Another red-coloured jeep was waiting at The Trident for these legislators. “I again went back to the hotel lobby to take my car,” said Sonia. More than 50 BJP workers were gathered at the lobby and were shouting, “Gaye, gaye, vidhayak gaye [The legislators have left]!”, “Le gai, ladki leke gai, ek ladki leke gai [One girl has taken the camped legislators away]”, “‘Unki student wali le gai [Their student leader has taken them away].” Chauhan shouted at his people, “Mai apako bol raha tha, usko dharlo, tumse dhari na gai [I was telling you guys, catch hold of her, but you did not do anything]!”

At the time when the BJP workers were creating a pandemonium in the lobby, Sonia had arrived to pick up her car. The BJP workers had no clue that this was the same woman who had taken away their legislators. The staff at the reception looked at her keys and told her that she would get her car at the ground floor. “I said to myself ‘margaye [I am dead]!’” said Doohan. All the BJP workers were on the ground floor searching for her. “I was tense and confused . . . but I decided to go down again…” said Sonia. As she took the elevator, someone recognised her and shouted, “Arré gai, gai, gai, woh ladki toh yahi hai, pakdo, pakdo, gulabi colour ki kurta wali ko pakdo [She is gone! That girl is here only. Catch her, catch her… she is wearing a pink kurta]!” Sonia handed over the key to the receptionist at the ground floor and demanded that her car be sent immediately. Four police vans standing outside the hotel were alerted on their wireless that a woman in a pink kurta had taken away the legislators from the hotel. As Sonia rushed out of the hotel in her car, the police spotted her and started chasing her.

“Delhi was a relatively safe zone for us. But the two km distance from the hotel to the border felt like 20 km. It was a huge risk and a lot was at stake,” said Sonia. “We had planned that as soon as we reached the border, we would [transfer] the legislators to a different vehicle. I was driving my SUV. I summoned all my energy and decided to drive as fast as possible. I knew that if the Gurgaon police managed to get hold of us, that would be the end of this rescue operation,” she said.

Sonia was aware that at night, that is, after sunset, no one, including the police, can stop the vehicle of a woman for checking. She decided to use this rule to her advantage as she whisked away the NCP legislators from Gurgaon to Delhi. Her car was being followed by what looked like police vehicles. “It was like a chor–police chase that we played plenty of times in our childhood, except that this was being played in a very different way. The distance was short but the risk was high. I knew Gurgaon like the back of my hand, so I decided to go for a little-known internal route to confuse those following us. I took the narrow lanes through which hardly any vehicle could pass. In the middle of all this, we also changed cars to confuse them further,” said Doohan.

“But the cars following us were not leaving us,” she continued. “They were constantly behind our vehicles. Often there was hardly any distance between their cars and our vehicles. However, we had one main advantage: my vehicle was automatic while they had a manual one. This ensured that they were somehow always at a safe distance.” She confessed that she was driving very rashly. “In my entire life, I have never driven at such a high speed. But crossing the border was our main target.”

Doohan said that they finally managed to cross the Haryana–Delhi border by taking an uncharted route. “We looked back and were relieved to see the vehicles halt at the Haryana border. As a safety measure, we shifted the legislators to my vehicle in the Shiv Murti area in Delhi,” said Doohan. However, even in Delhi, they went through a different route to reach 6 Janpath, the residence of Sharad Pawar. While all this was under way, the rescued NCP legislators were panicking and had started shouting, demanding to know where they were being taken through these unfamiliar, narrow roads. They asked Dheeraj Sharma where ‘Ajit Dada’ was and demanded to speak with him right away.

Dheeraj Sharma calmly dialled Sharad Pawar’s number and handed the phone to Anil Bhaidas Patil and Daroda. After hearing Sharad Pawar’s voice at the other end, they were shocked. They immediately changed their tone and pleaded, “‘Saheb, ami tumachya barobarach ahot, amala fasavala, chuk zali, maf kara, chuk padarat ghya [Saheb, we are sorry, we had no idea about this game plan. We made a mistake, please forgive us].” Pawar replied, “Why did you cheat me? You have been elected because of me and my party. What will you get by doing this?” Pawar seemed angry. Patil and Daroda continued their attempts to convince their boss, “We were told by Ajit Dada that you were also part of this game plan of going with the BJP. We did not get the real information. After watching the news on TV, we realised our mistake. We should not have listened to Ajit Dada. He misguided us.” The NCP legislators also had a word with Supriya Sule. Meanwhile, they reached 6 Janpath.

The operation, which had begun in Gurgaon at 9 pm, ended at 12.30 am, when they reached Sharad Pawar’s bungalow. Senior leaders were waiting for them. Flight tickets from Delhi to Mumbai had already been booked. The flight was scheduled to leave Delhi at 2.17 am and land at 4.40 am in Mumbai. Sharad Pawar was constantly in touch with his young brigade.

Both Sonia Doohan and Dheeraj Sharma with their team had tea and coffee late at night. They had just begun to relax for a bit when someone asked where the other two legislators were. “We were shocked. How had this happened!” said Doohan. They were so tense throughout the operation that they had not checked who was with them and who wasn’t. They realised, much to their dismay, that two of the four legislators had not been rescued. They once again called the NCP students and youth wing members who were at that time staying in the room that had been booked at the hotel. They were busy celebrating the success of this operation. More than a 100 team members were there in the hotel, scattered inside and outside the premises. Doohan called them and informed them that the operation was not over.

“Two NCP legislators are still there in the hotel,” conveyed a worried Doohan to her team. They were asked to prepare for another mission to rescue these two NCP legislators: Zirwal Narhari and Nitin Pawar who were still lodged in the same hotel. However, given the circumstances, everyone was on high alert now. To carry out a similar operation would be an uphill task for Sonia Doohan and Dheeraj Sharma. Everyone in the police now knew about the two of them. However, they did not want to give up. They set their minds to plan a second operation, but with a different strategy.

First, a trusted aide of Dheeraj Sharma was sent back to the hotel to assess the situation and devise a plan. “It was clear that a peaceful operation would not work this time. We asked them to plan a hit-and-run operation. Around 2.30 am, 100 youths of the NCP student wing barged into the fifth floor and knocked on the doors where the two NCP legislators were staying. But no one was in the rooms. They were shocked and wondered if the BJP had relocated these two legislators,” recounted Sonia. They called Dheeraj Sharma, who told them firmly to continue with their operation until it yielded a positive result. The NCP youths then knocked on every room on the fifth floor. Some of them were locked. The hotel manager’s help was sought to open the doors. One by one, every room on the fifth floor was checked. There was one room at the corner near the staircase which remained. They decided to check that. They knocked on the door and there was no response. They knocked a couple of times more and then discovered that the two NCP legislators were resting inside.

Doohan said, “BJP workers rushed to prevent them from taking the NCP legislators away. A fight broke out. The NCP youth were present in large numbers. The BJP had around 50 workers while the NCP numbered around 100, and that too well-built students. A group of NCP youths had caught hold of the two NCP legislators and got them to the ground floor while the other group kept the BJP workers engaged in a fight on the fifth floor itself.”

Doohan mentioned that a large group of BJP workers were there on the ground floor and they were being helped by the police. They immediately rushed to rescue the two NCP legislators from the clutches of the NCP’s youth and student wing workers. Zirwal, one of the NCP legislators, attempted to pacify the two groups by saying that he was not being forced and was going with them willingly. This further angered a couple of BJP workers who then assaulted Zirwal. Zirwal was badly injured. The NCP members asked Nitin Pawar to leave the hotel immediately for Sharad Pawar’s residence — 6 Janpath — and they said that they would follow him soon. Nitin Pawar left the hotel as instructed. He had also been instructed to take an autorickshaw and not a car. He left and caught an auto right outside the hotel.

Zirwal, at this time, was bleeding and in pain. An NCP student leader threatened to go live on Facebook and show the world that the BJP was beating him up. But even when he actually went live, the BJP workers said that the NCP could do whatever it wanted, but they would not leave Zirwal. Another group of NCP workers who had been waiting outside the hotel until then heard about the scuffle and immediately rushed inside. The BJP workers now realised that the NCP had more muscle power. Moreover, the live videostreaming put them on the back foot. They finally conceded defeat. Zirwal was promptly carried to a vehicle, which immediately left for 6 Janpath.

On their way, they also found the auto in which Nitin Pawar was travelling. The auto was easily identifiable due to its ‘HR’ number plate, and an auto from Haryana in Delhi was a rare sight. Nitin Pawar was also shifted to the car and brought to Sharad Pawar’s residence. The mission was finally accomplished by 4.30 am.

On reaching 6 Janpath, the legislators realised that they had left their MLA certificates in their bags at the hotel. The letters were very significant and would be needed later. A team was alerted and sent back to the hotel. The manager of the hotel was informed and once again his help was sought. When they reached the hotel, no one from the BJP was there. Most of them had left. The bags were collected and brought back to 6 Janpath. The entire rescue operation, which had begun the previous day ended at 8 am the next morning, on November 25.

The four rescued legislators landed in Mumbai and reached the Grand Hyatt where Sharad Pawar was waiting for them. During the journey from Delhi to Mumbai, these NCP MLAs pleaded with Sharma and Doohan, requesting them to tell Sharad Pawar that they had been misguided by Ajit Pawar and forcibly taken to Haryana. The NCP youth team reassured them, “Do not worry, now you are with us. If a person goes missing in the morning and comes home by the end of the day, then he is not a ‘missing person’.” After landing in Mumbai, Pawar warmly greeted Sonia Doohan, Dheeraj Sharma and their team and appreciated their marvelous work at such a crucial time. Doohan said, “The party members looked happy. It was a wonderful moment that I cannot express in words. To bring back legislators from a state under a BJP government was a tough task.” Subsequently, the signatures of these four MLAs were taken and sent to the Supreme Court with the statement that the NCP had the support of 53 legislators.

Doohan mentioned that after having worked hard for the past couple of days, it was a reward in itself to see Sharad Pawar’s smiling face. Doohan was later extensively interviewed by the media and appeared on several television channels. Dheeraj Sharma had wanted her to handle the media. The same day, in the evening, during the ‘We Are 162’ gathering, Sharad Pawar called her in front of Uddhav Thackeray, Sanjay Raut and other important leaders and asked them, ‘Do you know her?’ They were curious. Pawar told them, “Sonia is the ‘heroine’ of this story. She has done a wonderful job. Sonia made this government happen.”

An extract from Checkmate: How the BJP Won and Lost Maharashtra (Penguin Random House India)


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