News Briefs | Portrait: Sharad Pawar
Patriarch At Play
The astute politician is finding it difficult to manage his family’s ambitions
12 May, 2023
Sharad Pawar (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
WHEN SHARAD PAWAR, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar revolted against Sonia Gandhi’s leadership on the grounds of her foreign origin and founded the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) ahead of the 1999 Lok Sabha election, not many were willing to bet on their prospects. The fate of famous rebels like Devaraj Urs and Pranab Mukherjee, who either faded away or retraced their steps, was held up. As things turned out, the ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ trio hurt Congress in terms of perception and helped Atal Bihari Vajpayee return as prime minister in an election delayed due to the Kargil War. And in the Maharashtra Assembly election, Congress was forced to strike a post-poll deal with NCP to form a coalition. The alliance won again in 2004 and 2009 and, after parting ways in 2014, came together in 2019 to briefly form an unstable coalition with Shiv Sena.
It can be fairly said that Pawar did not wither away. NCP’s success in holding its own, along with Mamata Banerjee’s emergence in West Bengal under her own banner, indicated a decline of Congress from the time when it could crush rebels. VP Singh humbled Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, but the United Front government fell in 19 months. On the other hand, Pawar and Mamata were members of Congress-led governments at the Centre. Pawar, in particular, was a senior Cabinet minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Congress may not have always liked him—Rajiv Gandhi struggled to deal with the shrewd satrap—but made common cause with him anyway. As long as the parties shared power, either in Maharashtra or Delhi, they could pretty much live with each other.
At age 82, Pawar’s problems are not so much Congress. Rather, they are internal and have been bubbling and boiling for a while. After he formed NCP, Pawar furthered the pragmatic, patronage-driven politics he learnt at the grassroots. Holding the home portfolio, NCP made transfer and posting of police officials an important part of its power play. Its wooing of vote banks was often linked to winking at the activities of rabble-rousers. This was despite Pawar’s last term as chief minister, ending in the Shiv Sena-BJP successfully targeting him after the 1993 Bombay bombings. The saffron campaign song “PM tera CM diwana, Dawood ko dale dana (PM your CM is starry-eyed, nurturing Dawood)”, a catchy take on the popular song from the Bollywood hit Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, where it hurt most. In the state’s politics, Pawar successfully leveraged his clout in the Maratha base of western Maharashtra, to stitch a winning formula. In the process, he promoted leaders who could influence local networks and tap them at election time. In all of this, his nephew Ajit Pawar emerged as a party organiser. Later, Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule made a debut as Rajya Sabha MP in 2006, and has since often been seen as his putative successor.
The manner in which events unfolded recently, with Pawar announcing he was quitting as NCP leader, and a chorus of protests that followed ending with a committee of senior leaders asking him to continue, had an air of predictability. The leader’s decision to bow to the wishes of his followers is seen as a reaffirmation of his stewardship of NCP. The drama played out in the backdrop of speculation of Ajit Pawar joining BJP. Ajit Pawar, referred to as “dada (brother)”, had tried his hand at teaming up with BJP post the 2019 state election, but the experiment failed. Now that NCP is in the opposition, there is a growing impatience in his camp about settling his claims seen as credible and deserving. It is significant that dada did not join the initial chorus calling on Pawar to reconsider his “decision” to quit. At one point, he asked whether it was not reasonable for Pawar to consider the future of the party.
The storm might have passed but has not blown over altogether. Apart from rumbles within NCP, ties with allies have soured. Pawar’s unflattering references to Uddhav Thackeray’s record as chief minister resulted in the Saamna criticising him for failing to promote the next generation leadership in NCP. Critics in Congress like former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan also took a few potshots. The going does not look easy for the NCP boss.
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