Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray may become the next Chief Minister, but it is NCP leader Sharad Pawar, the grand old man of Maharashtra politics, who has emerged as the undisputed anchor and face of the three-party alliance.
Less than three months ago, Pawar — and his NCP — was staring at an uncertain political future. The perception was that the BJP-Sena would return to power in Maharastra. But Pawar led from the front, waging a spirited campaign even as ally Congress seemed to give up before the poll battle began.
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A photograph of the 79-year-old addressing a rally amid a heavy downpour in Satara became the defining image of the Assembly elections. The NCP finished third, but improved its tally from 41 seats in 2014 to 54 this time. Many Maharashtra Congress leaders accept, rather grudgingly, that Pawar’s enthusiastic campaign helped them in many seats.
But the real test for Pawar came after the results were declared. As the BJP and Sena fell out, Pawar began entertaining NCP and Congress leaders who wanted him to take the initiative. He played his cards well, nudging the Sena to leave the NDA, and presenting the Congress with an unlikely alliance.
Even as the three parties were holding talks, Pawar triggered speculation as he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ostensibly to discuss farmer issues. But he stuck with the Sena and Congress, leading the fight-back after nephew Ajit Pawar broke ranks, and steering the alliance to power.
He trumped the BJP, which has perfected the art of deft political maneuvering, in its own game.
On November 23, when Ajit sprang a surprise by joining hands with the BJP, Pawar swung into action, personally contacting his party MLAs. He scored first with four MLAs who had accompanied Ajit to Raj Bhavan, getting them to parade before the media. The message was clear: Ajit’s move did not have his consent and was not the party’s line.
Pawar’s act reassured the Sena and Congress that he had not orchestrated Ajit’s betrayal. He also sent out a terse warning to party MLAs harbouring plans to go with his nephew, making it clear that they would be subject to anti-defection laws.
He then deployed senior party leaders known to be close to Ajit, to reach out to those who had accompanied his nephew, also using contacts outside his own party. The ploy worked. Within 12 hours of Ajit’s rebellion, the tables had turned, and 42 of the 54 MLAs were back in the party fold. Six others had been contacted. Before the day ended, Ajit had just five MLAs with him.
Bolstered by the return of most of his MLAs, Pawar reached out to Ajit, through those close to him including party MP Sunil Tatkare, former minister Hasan Mushrif and former Assembly Speaker Dilip Walse-Patil, persuading him to call off his rebellion. His family members were also pressed into action.
When Ajit seemed unrelenting, Pawar, anticipating that the BJP could use Ajit’s status as NCP’s legislature party leader to its advantage in case of a floor test, convened a party meeting and got 42 MLAs to sign a resolution stripping him of the post, appointing state party chief Jayant Patil in his place.
The Sena, NCP and Congress then moved the Supreme Court, challenging the oath-taking and seeking an urgent floor test. And when there was no immediate floor test, the parties paraded their MLAs on Monday, claiming that they had 162. Taking centrestage in this show of strength, Pawar has, in many ways, bounced back to the centre of national politics.
Earlier, many in the Congress suspected that Pawar and Ajit were playing a double game, like Deve Gowda and his son H D Kumaraswamy in Karnataka a decade ago. In the past, the Congress leadership, especially Sonia, has never really trusted Pawar.
Sonia’s mistrust of Pawar dates back to before May 1999, when Pawar split the Congress to prevent her possible prime ministerial candidature, citing her foreign origin. Pawar was a strong claimant for the prime minister’s post then, as also in 1991. In 1991, he had to make way for P V Narasimha Rao, who had the support of majority of the MPs, especially Sonia, who had not entered politics then.
Then came the 1999 showdown. The trust deficit became apparent when Sonia, after she took over as Congress president, started relying on the likes of P Shiv Shankar rather than Pawar, who was Leader of the Opposition in Lok Sabha then.
“In my opinion, Sharad Pawar, as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, expected the party to request him, instead of Sonia Gandhi, to stake claim to form the government. After Sonia’s elevation as the Congress president, she consulted P Shiv Shankar on all important issues rather than Sharad Pawar. This sense of alienation and disenchantment may have been responsible for his statements on Sonia’s foreign origin, and his subsequent exit from the party in 1999,” Pranab Mukherjee, former President and veteran Congressman, recounted in his autobiography.
It is another matter that Pawar became part of the UPA in 2004. But the relationship soon turned sour again.
Cut to 2010. Pawar was often the subject of Congress barbs over his performance as Agriculture Minister. The NCP believes the Congress did not defend him enough when he and his family got embroiled in the IPL controversy.
In 2012, the Congress again signalled its lack of trust in him when it made A K Antony the No. 2 in the Cabinet, relegating Pawar to the third slot after Pranab Mukherjee took over as President.
But Pawar has now relegated the Congress, which was once a major player in the state, to the role of an adjunct. Even the Sena, which is set to head the new state government, has been forced to accept his predominance.