Title: On My Terms: From the Grassroots to the Corridors of Power
Author: Sharad Pawar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 699
Nationalist Congress Party founder Sharad Pawar does not tell all in his autobiography. There is absolutely nothing on cricket except his memories of the barrister Sheshrao Wankhede, who hosted all-party farmhouse bashes and, as president of the Mumbai Cricket Association, cordially disliked Cricket Club of India chief Vijay Merchant. In a brief aside, he also recalls driving in his Fiat with his wife to Wankhede Stadium to see a Test match. That was in February 1980, and he could afford the leisure because the night before — a moonless night, he notes — Indira Gandhi had dismissed his Progressive Democratic Front government.
Though he is resoundingly silent on contentious issues, what Pawar does reveal in On My Terms is telling enough. Two days before he was sent packing — literally, his friends Nusli Wadia, Ajit Gulabchand, Arun Dahanukar and Madhav Apte helped him pack — he had been summoned to Delhi by home minister Giani Zail Singh to meet Indira Gandhi. Who asked him, in almost as many words, if he was willing to jettison his mentor Yashwantrao Chavan and swear allegiance to Sanjay Gandhi. Pawar was disinclined, and the midnight knock followed.
Pawar is circumspect about his relationship with Sonia Gandhi, which he describes as “awkward”. In the 12th Lok Sabha, by tacit understanding, they kept to their own turf. As Congress president, she never interfered with his work as leader of the party in the Lower House. Except on one occasion when, after conferring with her, he submitted the list of Congress nominees for parliamentary committees. He was summoned by the speaker, GMC Balayogi, who said that Congress chief whip PJ Kurien had submitted a different list, on Sonia’s instructions. Pawar asked her to have Kurien’s list withdrawn. ‘“You may withdraw your list,’ the Congress president replied calmly.” That was the beginning of the end, and Pawar was expelled after expressing an opinion on the foreigner issue which would dog Sonia Gandhi forever.
An interesting moment with Rajiv Gandhi followed a challenge to Pawar’s leadership in Maharashtra by Vilasrao Deshmukh, Ramrao Adik, SB Chavan, AR Antulay and Sushilkumar Shinde, whom Pawar had recruited from the police. They failed to muster local strength and the “observers” sent by Delhi, GK Moopanar and Ghulam Nabi Azad, had to be escorted to their cars to prevent ugly scenes.
Soon after, ML Fotedar summoned him to a meeting with Rajiv Gandhi. “It turned out to be an interesting encounter,” writes Pawar. “As soon as I entered Rajiv’s room, he asked, ‘So? What’s happening?’ ‘You know better than me,’ I replied. ‘Everyone in Mumbai acted quite efficiently as per your instructions…’ Rajiv had no option but to admit his involvement, although obliquely. ‘No, no. Something went wrong there. I had just asked them to shake the tree, not uproot it.’ … A few days later, Sushilkumar Shinde and Vilasrao Deshmukh came to see me. They were like penitent schoolboys and confessed sheepishly, ‘We won’t ever repeat this.’”
Pawar’s proximity to Chandra Shekhar brought him close to Indian Express founder Ramnath Goenka. “I started interacting regularly with the old man in his Express Towers penthouse at Nariman Point in Mumbai,” he writes. “After I formed a coalition government with the Janata Party in 1978, we grew closer.”
Nusli Wadia was a common friend. “We remember fondly our chat sessions at Ramnath Goenka’s Mumbai penthouse where Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also an occasional visitor. Nusli and Atalji shared a great equation and they would often shout and scream at each other as all close friends do.”
There is a rare portrait of a weak and gullible PV Narasimha Rao, who rejected military security at the Babri Masjid, trusting the assurances of Hindutva leaders who engineered the demolition. Pawar, who was defence minister, nevertheless, ordered videography of the site by the army, and he recounts how the Chanakya of the Congress was numbed by what the tapes revealed.
Many events recounted here are well known, but told from Pawar’s point of view, they take on fresh meaning. As a document of record, the value of this autobiography may lie in the sections on his early life, as a protégé of Yashwantrao Chavan in Maharashtra politics. Pawar remains rooted in Baramati, which sent him to the assembly and to parliament. He tells of travelling by truck to Mumbai as a teenager to sell produce from the family farm. “My most vivid memory of the day India became independent is of a silver coin and one Ravalgaon toffee,” he writes, recalling the day when his class of six-year-olds celebrated freedom. Now, after a book launch in which the president, the prime minister, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh shared the stage with Pawar, demonstrating his acceptability across party lines, he may be preparing to take the final step of his political life, towards Rashtrapati Bhavan.