The ageing Maratha stalwart has everyone guessing which way he will go
Sharad Pawar’s facial expressions are not easy to read, especially not since a surgery for mouth cancer left his jaw contorted. But what he has on his mind has always been a subject of conjecture. With a general election upon the country, this game has reached yet another peak. All the more so because, for all his wily manoeuvres of the past that made him the stuff of state folklore and gave him his bargaining chips with Delhi’s power elite, his sway over Maharashtra politics is now seen to be on the decline.
Elected unopposed to the Rajya Sabha a week ago, Pawar has categorically stated that the Lok Sabha is not his scene anymore. Dogged by illness—he is being treated for cancer—his hold on his party and Delhi’s political arena has been slipping. He may still be the chief of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), as also India’s Minister for Agriculture in the UPA Government at the Centre, and the Marathi media still projects him as the ‘Maratha Strongman’ he once was, but persistent charges of corruption—some levelled by Anna Hazare—have stuck and his credibility has taken a beating.
Even so, Pawar retains enough regional clout to count as a significant player for power. It’s just that observers across the political divide feel these polls are Pawar’s last chance of gaining the role he has long dreamt of: India’s Prime Ministership. It’s now or never, they say.
How he rates his chances could influence his behaviour this electoral season. Though an administrator of some ability with an acumen few others can boast of, his grand ambition has stymied him in the past. In a political career spanning half a century, he has shifted ideologies, moved camps, grown closer to some and distanced himself from others, and struck all manner of backroom deals. In the bargain, he has lost the trust of many.
“He has clearly changed his ambition. It is no longer to be the Prime Minister,” says Vinod Tawade, the BJP’s leader of the opposition in Maharashtra’s Legislative Council. “He probably wants to be President of the country and so the Rajya Sabha is a better route. It gives the impression of being apolitical.” There may be some truth in Tawade’s observation, as many who know him are surprised by his acceptance of a seat in the Upper House.
Analysing Pawar’s Rajya Sabha entry, Dr Neelam Gorhe, MLC and Shiv Sena spokesperson, says that this is no indication that the leader will keep out of active politics. “He will now have more time for manipulation and coalition politics,” she says. Some months ago, faced with corruption charges, Pawar felt that staying on with the UPA was a safe option. Whether he still feels that way is now in doubt.
His disenchantment with the Congress has been apparent for quite some time. Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to No 2 status in the Congress was a blow to him, as he is opposed to any projection of the Gandhi scion as the UPA’s PM candidate. According to author and political commentator Prakash Bal Joshi, Gandhi’s aggressive posturing has alienated Pawar further still. Tawade agrees. “It is like history repeating itself,” he says, “Pawar was forced to work under Sonia Gandhi, who was totally new to politics. Now it seems like his turn to work under Rahul Gandhi.”
With that as a context, Pawar’s recent demand that questions over Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots of 2002 be put to rest has raised eyebrows and piqued curiosity about his political plans. Notably, Pawar issued his statement soon after Rahul Gandhi took potshots at the BJP’s PM candidate in a TV interview. And Congressmen recall other occasions in the past that Pawar has spoken in praise of Modi’s administrative skills.
Does this indicate a warming up to the BJP? Nobody is too sure.
Pawar, says Joshi, is one of the most unpredictable politicians he has ever met: “He is a leader who keeps his options open. He may be in a coalition government with the Congress, but he is already exploring the idea of a third front.” Joshi does not rule out an alignment between Pawar, West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee of the Trianmool Congress and Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK. “Pawar never reveals what is going through his mind, nor does he provide explanations for his moves,” says Mahesh Vijapurkar, former chief of The Hindu’s Mumbai Bureau, who has reported extensively on the leader.
Many years ago, when a Marathi TV channel had interviewed the leader’s wife Pratibha, she had joked that she could never tell what went on in his mind. On another occasion, his daughter Supriya Sule had told filmmaker Jabbar Patel that her father was completely unpredictable. All that can be discerned of Pawar’s disposition right now is a certain restlessness.
If Pawar is restless, some of it may stem from a question of the NCP leadership’s succession. “His dilemma is that he has to decide who to hand over the crown to,” says Tawade, “His daughter [Supriya Sule] or his nephew [Ajit Pawar].”
Despite being a national-level politician, Pawar has been extremely reluctant to let go of his control of the NCP’s Maharashtra affairs. This has resulted in a clash of wills between the senior leader and his nephew on various issues. The years since Pawar’s surgery have not been kind. Questions over his leadership capacity— his recent loss of weight has been a subject of party gossip—have not been lost on his nephew Ajit, who stayed in his uncle’s shadow for decades before he took to asserting himself in state politics a few years ago.
It is an open secret in political circles that Ajit Pawar, as Maharashtra’s Deputy CM, has broken free of his uncle’s authority and tried hard to put his stamp on the NCP. Though other party leaders have kept Pawar in the loop on his nephew’s progress, the uncle has not been able to rein him in. If he lets his nephew lead the party into Maharashtra’s Assembly polls, Pawar may never regain full control of the party he founded along with Tariq Anwar and PA Sangma as a breakaway from the Congress in 1999 on the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s so-called ‘foreign origin’.
Ajit, as a parallel power centre to his uncle, has already played havoc with the ageing leader’s plans to have his daughter Supriya take over the NCP. Ajit has made it clear that he wants to be the state’s CM and has already begun work in that direction. He has sidelined all those who are his uncle’s loyalists and created his own set. Pawar’s announcement that he will not contest a Lok Sabha seat has only aided his nephew’s cause by sending retirement signals to NCP members. Many of them see no chance of Pawar ever becoming the country’s PM; the cascade effect of that ambition, which had been a rallying point for many, is now more or less lost.
“Pawar has exhausted all his non-political [opportunities] for political gains,” says Gorhe, who sees Ajit’s taking over the NCP as highly probable now. Other senior NCP leaders who have sat on the fence between the uncle and nephew now say that they are disappointed with the NCP chief. “Saheb does not look so powerful at the Centre either,” says a senior NCP leader anonymously, “He may not be PM; 2014 is his last chance. The NCP may not be that stronger thereafter.”
Much may depend on how voters respond to the NCP on ballots this time round. According to a leader who has known Pawar for decades, his best-case range is 60 Assembly and 10 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, that’s all. Tawade does not think Pawar has much of a chance either. “In the forthcoming elections, the NCP will do much more badly than the Congress,” says the BJP leader, “Their ministers are facing more corruption charges than the Congress. The NCP will find it difficult to win seats. What will then happen to Pawar’s PM dream?”
The Maratha leader is accustomed to controversy. Back in 2002-03, a statement by the then Maharashtra CM Sudhakar Naik set tongues wagging about his alleged links with criminals. Naik had alleged that Pawar had asked him to ‘go easy’ on Pappu Kalani, a criminal-turned- politician and MLA from Ulhasnagar, and tried to forge an association with Hitendra Thakur, another man with a dubious reputation. Naik’s allegations seemed to echo charges made by the then deputy commissioner of the BMC, GR Khairnar, who, while taking on Dawood Ibrahim’s illegal constructions, had accused Pawar of defending dreaded criminals (even though he couldn’t prove his charges). In 2003, Abdul Karim Telgi, the kingpin of the Rs 60 crore Stamp Paper Scam, had reportedly named Pawar during a narco-analysis test as a politician involved; a livid Pawar sought a probe that revealed nothing.
Even as a UPA minister, Pawar has faced charge upon charge of graft. In 2007, the BJP sought Pawar’s resignation alleging his involvement in a wheat import scandal. In 2010, the leader’s family was alleged to hold a 16-per cent stake in City Corporation, which had bid for the IPL’s Pune franchise. Though Pawar and his relatives denied the charges, an IPL Board resolution reportedly contradicted his claims. Then came accusations of bending rules to favour Pune district’s Lavasa Project, in the developer of which Supriya Sule and her husband Sadanand had a stake of more than 20 per cent (later sold). In 2011, Pawar was accused of declaring assets—of Rs 12 crore—far less than his personal wealth.
Nor has the recent 2G Spectrum Scam left Pawar unscathed. When Shahid Usman Balwa, managing director of DB Realty, was arrested along with his partner Vinod Goenka for trying to secure out-of-turn airwaves to sell at a profit, Pawar’s name cropped up for his reported closeness to Balwa and Goenka. Pawar denied the allegations, but his reputation took another big hit. Can Pawar live all these scandals down? It is unclear.
What is clear is Pawar’s increasing isolation from the Congress. Signs of his disaffection were on public display once AK Antony was appointed No 2 in the Union Cabinet after Pranab Mukherjee’s elevation as the President of India. Pawar had sulked and not attended office for a couple of days—until Sonia Gandhi held a conciliatory meeting with him.
However, much has changed since. Pawar does not expect the UPA to win re- election this time, say those in the know, what with its prospects marred by raging inflation and a string of scandals.
What stands out in all this is Pawar’s ‘intimacy’ with the UPA’s principal opposition. This is not a new factor. After the Bhuj earthquake in 2001, Pawar was appointed chairman of the national disaster management committee by the BJP- led NDA government. This led to increased interactions with the BJP, Gujarat and Modi.
Yet, a pre/post-poll alliance with Pawar is not a viable option for the BJP. The saffron party has levelled many charges of corruption against him, says a senior BJP leader, and an alliance with the NCP would erode its own anti-graft credentials. Even the Shiv Sena, the BJP’s alliance partner, is doubtful that Pawar will go with the saffron combine this year. “We feel that he will not come wholeheartedly along with the BJP and Shiv Sena,” says Gorhe, “As a regional party leader, he is dependent on coalitions, but the Shiv Sena may not be a natural choice.” This, despite the fact that Pawar has been asked to plan and oversee the building of a memorial to Bal Thackeray, the late founder of the Shiv Sena. As a close friend of Thackeray and a mentor to his son Uddhav, it surprises none that Pawar was asked to do this.
In the 13 years since Pawar’s alliance with the Congress, he has hobnobbed with the grand old party’s ideological opposition, but not dared quit the arrangement. The alliance, he has stated over and over again, is held together by the duo’s political compulsion to keep ‘communal forces’—a reference to the BJP-Sena saffron combine—at bay.
Perhaps that logic still holds the NCP in good stead. Perhaps not. Either way, he wants to keep all options open. However, if neither the Congress nor BJP fare too well, and a third or fourth front needs anyone who can get a few odd seats along, Pawar’s career may get another lease of life. That, perhaps, is why he wants to keep everyone guessing.