For five-and-a-half years, the Opposition had been looking for a leader who could take on Narendra Modi. The recent developments in Maharashtra have catapulted Sharad Pawar to a position where he is being viewed not just as a skilled practitioner of realpolitik, but also as a possible “sutradhar” for opposition unity in the months to come.
It’s not as if he has acquired mass appeal of the kind that Modi enjoys. But he has shown that he can deliver, and defeat the BJP at its own game.
Though the BJP-Shiv Sena got a majority in the October elections, it was Uddhav Thackeray who was sworn in as the chief minister of Maharashtra at the head of a Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government and their Maha Vikas Aghadi sailed through the trust vote, ending a tortuous 40-day exercise in government formation.
Pawar demonstrated that he remains the “Maratha strongman” and exercises complete control over his party. Also, he can get back errant MLAs, led by his nephew Ajit Pawar, to his side — which led to the exit of Devendra Fadnavis as an 80-hour chief minister.
Pawar has shown, too, that he can get unlikely parties on the same page — the Shiv Sena to accept “secularism” in the common minimum programme and Sonia Gandhi to agree to do business with the Sena, something she had shunned earlier — with both parties agreeing to climb down from their well-known positions to keep the BJP at bay. The Maha Vikas Aghadi is now trying to counter the BJP’s Hindu nationalism with a mix of soft Hinduism, sustenance issues involving farmers and youth, and sub-nationalism, with its appeal to the “Marathi Manoos”.
The whole story of how Pawar navigated a minefield of contradictions has not yet come out, particularly what transpired at his famous 45-minute meeting with the prime minister. The meeting’s optics played a role in pressurising a prevaricating Sonia Gandhi to fall in line, and its substance was meant to placate a restive pro-BJP group inside the NCP. Ajit Pawar was one of the four senior leaders (out of 18) who had reportedly made a case for the NCP to go with the BJP.
The BJP’s midnight coup actually helped the three parties to sink their differences, which they were struggling to overcome. It also lost the saffron party the sympathy it was beginning to gain after the Sena broke the pre-poll alliance over the issue of rotational CM-ship.
Sharad Pawar has managed to ward off pressures to make Ajit Pawar deputy CM, even as the first six ministers were sworn in, though how long he can do so remains to be seen. This would have robbed the moment of its sheen and made many wonder whether the whole drama was “fixed” by uncle and nephew for the withdrawal of irrigation cases against the latter.
Ajit Pawar’s brief exit from the party has redrawn the lines of succession in the NCP, with daughter Supriya Sule coming out smelling of roses. Ordinary people in Maharashtra are talking about the dignity (constantly taking care of MLAs during those tense days) and humility (hugging Ajit Pawar on his return) with which she conducted herself. She can be expected to play a larger role in the party in the coming days.
Pawar is cast in the old Congress mould. He knows that politics in India is not just about parties but is also contingent on personal relationships across parties. Over the years, Pawar has forged links across the political spectrum, funded candidates, nurtured bureaucrats, police officers, those in intelligence agencies, corporates, and marginalised those opposed to him. He has a network all over the country which is well-disposed to him. It was his four decade-long relationship with Sena chief, Balasaheb Thackeray, and the rapport he established with Uddhav Thackeray — from all accounts the “political understanding” was forged before the poll results — which formed the centrepiece of the Maha Vikas Aghadi. Though he has sported the image of being adept at “jorh torh”, he is respected by regional satraps — even more so now — for his political acumen, whether it is Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, M K Stalin, KCR, Chandrababu Naidu or Mulayam Singh Yadav.
Sharad Pawar could play a unifying role in the Opposition and emerge as a “sutradhar”, because the main players could listen to what he has to say today. Of course, the rise of Sharad Pawar could make the Congress uneasy. Many in the Congress look up to him but Sonia Gandhi is still wary of him. Yet, she agreed to be a junior member in the Aghadi government, led by the Shiv Sena, in order to keep her flock together in Maharashtra. Also because the Maharashtra experiment could help resurrect the Congress, as an idea and an organisation opposed to the BJP.
The Pawar effect could deepen the faultlines in the NDA. The exit of the Shiv Sena has emboldened the BJP’s other allies to speak up. The JD(U) has asked the BJP to “introspect”, the Akali Dal is restive, the LJP of Ram Vilas Paswan is fighting the ongoing elections in Jharkhand on its own. Shiv Sena’s one-man demolition squad, Sanjay Raut, has already declared that “they” may be forming an alternative government in Goa.
Pawar will now be called on to ensure the survival of the baby he has successfully delivered. This is not going to be easy, going by the BJP’s belligerence at the trust vote, and the “Ajit factor”. Unless Ajit Pawar is “satisfied”, he could become a magnet for disgruntled elements in the NCP. Sharad Pawar may have calculated that it might be easier to contain Ajit inside the party than outside it.
For the moment, however, by snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, Sharad Pawar has dented the “invincible” image of the BJP, thereby holding out hope for an otherwise down and out Opposition.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 5, 2019 under the title ‘Great Pawar, greater responsibilities’. The writer is a senior journalist.