At a time when political confrontation is at its worst, there was a moment of rare bonhomie on Thursday as leaders of all parties sank their personal and political differences, and shared the stage for about 90 minutes. They exchanged smiles and pleasantries, shook hands and posed for photographs as they came together to celebrate the 75th birthday of NCP leader Sharad Pawar, known as a man of all seasons.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi were on the stage, along with Manmohan Singh, L K Advani, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad, Sitaram Yechury, Farooq Abdullah and Parkash Singh Badal. And in the audience sat Rahul Gandhi, Arun Jaitley, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge, Venkaiah Naidu, a host of union ministers, Chief Ministers Vasundhara Raje and Devendra Fadnavis, MPs and leaders cutting across the political spectrum.
President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice President Hamid Ansari and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan were also on the dais.
After the event, Modi and Rahul shook hands and exchanged smiles. Only yesterday, Rahul had alleged that the Congress leadership was being targeted by the Prime Minister’s Office and linked the National Herald issue with the PMO.
After the speeches — largely in praise of Pawar, who has completed five-and-a-half decades in public life — they all posed for a group photograph.
President Mukherjee thanked Pawar for bringing together the “entire cross-section of Indian political leadership”, saying it reflected the “inherent strength of Indian democracy”, showing political leaders can come together for an occasion, irrespective of party and ideology.
Vice-President Ansari called him a model all-rounder, who “lived his life on his own terms” and at times “adjusted his terms” to suit the atmospherics of the day.
Sonia felicitated Pawar’s wife, Pratibha. In the summer of 1999, Pawar had challenged Sonia’s projection as the Congress’s prime ministerial candidate. He was expelled from the Congress, leading to the formation of the NCP. Sonia mentioned her differences with Pawar.
“We may have differed on some occasions, perhaps on many occasions, as any two individuals would do in a democratic system. But what has always been there is our respect for each other and the mutual belief that the legacy of our founding fathers should be protected, preserved and promoted. Although he parted ways with us, the Congress and NCP have been valued allies,” she said.
“The presence of so many personalities today, cutting across the political spectrum, is testimony to Pawar’s unique talents. His friendship with his political opponents and adversaries are legendary. In the modern language of IT, his networking skills are formidable, and those skills are much needed when politics takes on a bitter partisan flavor, as it does every now and then. He is a politician through and through, in the best sense of that term,” said Sonia.
Everyone spoke about Pawar’s achievements as the Union agricultural minister. Modi recalled his conversations with Pawar, centered around agriculture and farmers. “Farmers get a sense of the weather. Sharad Rao used this well in politics. If you want to know which way the political wind is blowing, you just have to sit with him,” said Modi. “Even today, just mention sugarcane, and he will talk about it for an hour. Whenever you meet him, even for 10 minutes, he will bring up the issue of farmers,” he said.