Amid heated newsroom debates and front page photographs of ink-faced Sudheendra Kulkarni, the real story behind the Kasuri book launch went unnoticed throughout the week. The Shiv Sena’s protest, though rhetorically against former Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, may have actually been aimed against its own ally Bharatiya Janata Party and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Even those associated with organising Kasuri’s book launch said that the Sena’s reaction was unexpected. The police said that the Sena, however, did not engineer any other protest during Kasuri’s stay in India from 11 to 14 October. “They had said they will protest against the book launch. We foiled that attempt. No other protest was declared anyway,” Mumbai Police Commissioner Ahmed Javed said.
“If it would have been the Sena of the past days, it would have definitely disrupted the programme. They would have created trouble for Kasuri. The fact that they did nothing of this means that either that was not their intention or that it is not the Sena of the past,” an official closely associated with the book launch told The Sunday Guardian on condition of anonymity.
The heavily attended launch of Neither a hawk nor a dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy was jointly organised by think tank Observer Research Foundation, Nehru Centre, and Penguin Books India. The programme was preceded by a panel discussion by lawyer A.G. Noorani, senior journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, actor Naseeruddin Shah, and ORF chairperson Sudheendra Kulkarni.
There were unconfirmed media reports that some Shiv Sainiks who had gained entry to the venue, resisted from protesting on the direction of “Matoshree”, the house of Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray. CM Fadnavis denied media reports that he had called “Matoshree” seeking peace. “I did not make any calls to anybody,” he told reporters later that day.
The turn of events from 9 to 13 October were marked by inconsistent developments. From not holding any protests against Kasuri at the venue of his book launch or at Mani Bhavan and Jinnah House, which he visited on Tuesday, to training the guns only on BJP and CM Fadnavis during Kasuri’s stay in Mumbai, the inconsistencies are many. Let us first look at the chronology of events.
On 6 October, ORF sends out invitations about the book launch. The event is expected to be a thinly-attended academic exercise. But, on 9 October, ORF chairperson Sudheendra Kulkarni writes a harshly-worded letter against Shiv Sena to CM Fadnavis, seeking state security against Sena’s “repeated acts of coercion” and the party members’ “brazen habit to take law into their own hands”. The letter is widely circulated in the media fraternity by ORF.
Highly placed political sources told The Sunday Guardian that it was ensured that a copy of the letter reached “Matoshree”. Till then, Shiv Sena had no inkling about the programme. The next day, the Sena reacted and opposed the programme. The CM himself refrained from commenting on the issue for two days after ORF wrote the letter. Finally, on 11 October, he said he will provide security for the programme. The same evening, ORF’s Kulkarni and Nehru Centre chief executive Satish Sahney went to meet Uddhav Thackeray at his bungalow “Matoshree”. What all transpired behind the closed doors is not completely known, but Kulkarni said he asked Thackeray to send a party representative for the programme who would talk before the audience about the reasons for opposition. That night Kasuri lands in Mumbai. No protests are held against him at the plush South Mumbai hotel where he is put up. On Monday, six Shiv Sainiks smear Kulkarni’s face with black ink. He uploads his selfie and invites the media for a press briefing on a short notice of a few minutes. At the South Mumbai office of ORF, which is thronged by the media, Kasuri makes an appearance. He was anyway slated to interact with a select group of journalists that morning. There is no sign of Shiv Sena at ORF office too, where a joint press briefing by Kulkarni and Kasuri takes place. This is followed by media speculation that the Sena has called off the protests. Rumours have it that the CM made a call to “Matoshree” and brokered peace. By 3 pm, senior party leader and Saamna executive editor Sanjay Raut says Sena agitation will continue.
On this background, unprecedented police security is provided for the event, which is very well-attended. The programme goes on uninterrupted. Media reports say that Shiv Sainiks who had entered the venue, left the place without protesting after they received a call from Matoshree. The reasons behind this are still not known. None of the Sena leaders The Sunday Guardian spoke to, talked on the issue. On Tuesday, Kasuri visits Mani Bhavan and Jinnah House. There is no trace of Sena protest at any of the venues. Instead, Sena chooses to train its guns on the CM, teaching him lessons about patriotism.
On Wednesday, Kasuri leaves Mumbai without facing any protest by the Sena.
“It seems they only wanted to embarrass the CM,” a highly placed official in the BJP said. On its part, the BJP provided protection to the programme, but refrained from attending it. The only dignitary invited on behalf of the BJP was the party’s state chief spokesperson Madhav Bhandari. But he avoided attending it. “I could not reach the venue on time because I was occupied with some party work,” he told The Sunday Guardian.
The BJP leadership was unhappy with the Sena’s stand against its own government.
“This protest was a setting. It was anti-BJP and nothing else,” a senior BJP leader rued. This week had brought out many confrontationist situations between the two allies, wherein a Cabinet meeting was postponed in view of the differences.
Another party leader said nobody wanted to analyse the situation as it worked well for all the players involved, including the media.
“Everybody got their two minutes of fame as the media was taken for a ride. It too happily boarded the bus without scratching the surface because TV channels got good TRPs and print media got compelling images. All the content made for a visually great story, and a catchy newsroom debate,” the BJP leader said.
In the process, the event which could have been a thinly-attended academic exercise went on to become a highly controversial and well-attended programme on Monday.