Sharad Pawar is a long-distance runner and a very focused person: a 24/7 politician. He has never made a secret of his ambition to be prime minister; in fact,he has been working openly towards that for the past 20 years. But he set the target back in the late 70s when he became chief minister of Maharashtra,heading the states first coalition. In that Progressive Democratic Front were diverse political elements,from the Sangh Parivar to Samajawadi Saathis.
He formed the front methodically,behind closed doors,before dramatically toppling the government of Congress veteran Vasantdada Patil. Patils government itself was an alliance of sorts,between Indira Gandhis faction and that of Y.B. Chavan. These factions had emerged after the Congresss second split,following Mrs Gandhis defeat in the referendum-like 1977 elections: party stalwarts Chavan and Brahmananda Reddy distanced themselves from Indira Gandhi and formed a parallel Congress.
Pawars own Congress (S) was a sort of third breakaway,because he had broken his association with the Congress completely. But all that happened with the backdrop of the Janata government in New Delhi. Pundits and journalists do not agree,even today,whether Pawar broke away on the advice of Y.B. Chavan or acted on his own. Chavan re-joined the Congress (I) in 1980,on her return to power. But Pawar remained with his PDF. That explains his bonhomie with non-Congress and even anti-Congress parties; indeed,his networking across parties is always a subject of political gossip and intrigue. He is admired and also abhorred for this very skill.
He rejoined the mainstream Congress,by then led by Rajiv Gandhi,in December 1986. He described it as a great relief he had spent nearly six years in the political wilderness! Meanwhile,Mrs Gandhi had been assassinated in 1984; within the month,Pawars mentor,Y.B. Chavan,too died. In fact,after Rajiv became prime minister,Pawar had not only kept his distance but also remained in the Opposition Club,one reason perhaps that many Congress loyalists distrusted him then and do so still.
Soon after joining the Rajiv-led Congress,he worked his way to become chief minister,again,in 1988,exactly 10 years after the PDF experiment. But soon Rajiv was embroiled in the Bofors controversy,followed quickly by the Ayodhya issue. V.P. Singhs totally unexpected betrayal and Rajivs naive response to him (you too,Brutus) had created a storm of confusion in the party rank and file,with the Raja trying to usurp the Mr Clean image. Rajiv lost the election in 1989,mainly because he failed to politically deal with this storm.
Though he was chief minister,he could not establish a credible relationship with Rajiv and,as reports then clearly suggested,the Congress high command itself gave the green signal for a rebellion against Pawar,which almost brought his chief ministership to the brink. He survived,but more because in New Delhi another toppling game had begun. Then-PM Chandra Shekhar had started getting into difficulties. Rajiv called off the rebellion against Pawar. Within two months Chandra Shekhar fell and elections were announced. Pawar was panicky. He felt that after the parliamentary elections,he would be asked to quit. But destiny had something else planned. Rajiv was killed mid-campaign and the political landscape changed.
It was then that Pawar first chose to contest for the top job,against Narasimha Rao. The prime ministership,Pawar thought,was almost in his sight. Sonia was nowhere in the decision-making process,and he could not complain that she blocked his march. The year was 1991,he was 51,in the mainstream party,and with connectivity across the parties. But Rao proved to be smarter and played his seniority card,virtually forcing Pawar to withdraw from the
contest at the last minute.
That was a setback; and yet it established,or so he thought,that he was perceived as prime-minister material. He considers himself an architect of multi-party alliances and feels that if there is a crisis,he has the ability to navigate through it. A master of political skulduggery,he has mobilised all kinds of resources to take a final plunge. Now he is 70,and feels that this year could be his last chance.
At the NCP meeting held in Nashik this weekend,Sharad Pawar virtually declared intra-UPA war,challenging the Congress high command to decide on its national alliances or face fratricidal fights. Pawar is convinced,like many observers,that even if the Congress emerges as the single largest party (however debatable an assumption that may be),it may not find allies with working arithmetic. He feels that in that situation the party will be forced to take a stand,like in 1996,when Deve Gowda became prime minister with the support of the Congress and the Left. To prevent the BJP from forming the government,the Congress will have no option but to support a candidate,not from a Third Front,but from a Fourth Front. Sure,he has better networking with the other secular parties and,if the situation demands,also with the communal parties. Unsurprisingly,the Shiv Sena,notwithstanding its formal alliance with the BJP,has made it abundantly clear that if Pawar is the candidate for the top job,he has their support. But,in case of even more complicated parliamentary arithmetic,Pawar can mobilise outside support from the BJP too. After all the secular government led by V.P. Singh was supported by the BJP as well as the Left.
Therefore,whether the situation is comparable to 1989 or 1996,Pawar feels that there is still a chance to hit the bulls eye and he might be right. It is not a question of how many seats his party wins. The question is how many MPs are obliged to him across the parties. Pawars skills in spreading the net during elections and helping other parties friendly candidates is well known,as are his smart moves to defeat his own partys candidates. In this election,his chances of becoming PM will improve only if the Congress and the BJP both get less than 150 seats and their formal allies lose heavily. In that situation,there would be a search for a candidate who can operate out of the box. And who else can be there in or out of the box as the situation demands,except Pawar? He just wants to repeat the experiment of the PDF,which he successfully implemented exactly 30 years ago. The actors are ready,the lights are on,the stage is set,the audience is in. The search is for the playwright. Because the final script will be written by 700 million electors.
The writer is editor of Loksatta