Over the past three decades, little has happened in Maharashtra politics without Sharad Pawar having had a say in it. His omnipresence no longer looks certain, which explains the NCP’s unilateral decision to offer support from outside to the BJP in forming a government.
Since 1999, when the Congress-NCP formed the government, it was only with Pawar’s consent that the Congress chose its chief ministers — Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Ashok Chavan, Prithviraj Chavan. In fact, even in 1995, when the Pawar-led Congress lost in the elections, he is said to have influenced the Shiv Sena’s decision to make Manohar Joshi the chief minister. The most senior leader was Sudhir Joshi but Bal Thackeray, apparently influenced by his friend Pawar, chose Manohar Joshi at the last moment.
The current power play within the BJP makes talk about Pawar’s future all the more intriguing. While a section within the BJP proposes Nitin Gadkari for chief minister, the NCP offer has set the stage for the two parties to fall back on the friendship between Pawar and Gadkari.
What is different from earlier is that the NCP has a lot more at stake. If the BJP accepts the offer, the question is the extent to which Pawar can exert his influence in state politics when the BJP’s decisions are driven by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. “Today, the BJP is very strong both at the Centre and in the state. Allies will have a limited role,” says political observer Surendra Jondhale. “But Pawar cannot be dismissed in any decision-making if BJP were to depend on him for running a government.”
NCP sources admit the offer of support from outside to the BJP is an attempt to keep Pawar’s presence alive in state politics. “A regional party like the NCP has no stake left at the Centre and cannot afford to lose its base on home turf. Outside support to BJP would work to the NCP’s advantage as the party could have a say in the policies of the state government.”
A former NCP minister said, “There is a strong feeling within the organisation that an experienced leader like Pawar can work extremely well with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has centred his politics on development.”
As union agriculture minister, Pawar had often cited his excellent working relations with then Gujarat chief minister Modi. Since then, Modi and Pawar have crossed swords during the assembly elections, with Modi taking the battle to Pawar’s hometown of Baramati.
The day after the election results, the NCP core committee reached a consensus and former union minister Praful Patel announced its readiness to offer support from outside. The BJP has said the Shiv Sena is the first choice and the NCP the second option, but the state unit is divided.
Those against taking the NCP’s support, in fact, fear Pawar would end up dictating terms to the party and in the long run sully the image of BJP. “But Mumbai leaders believe an alliance with the NCP would help them corner the Shiv Sena in the long run, as the Sena vote base would automatically come to the BJP rather than the MNS,” a senior Mumbai BJP leader said. “We find ourselves in a catch-22 situation.”
Agreeing that an alliance with the NCP is Plan-B, a BJP leader said, “The Shiv Sena is our natural partner but if for some reason things fall apart, the NCP is the best option available. If we have the NCP on board, we would still need the help of Nitin Gadkari to avoid confrontation.”
Says political analyst Bharatkumar Raut,“No one doubts Pawar’s experience, ability and vision for development politics. But at the moment he appears on the back foot. The NCP’s offer to support BJP is out of desperation. The NCP needs the BJP to keep its presence in state politics.” But he adds, “Pawar has often been credited with decisions where he had no role to play. I would attribute his image of Superman to his chamchas.”