In the run-up to government formation in Maharashtra, there were rumours that there was intense pressure on Sharad Pawar to ally with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and form the government. When Pawar met Narendra Modi in New Delhi for over 40 minutes days before his nephew Ajit Pawar’s rebellion and said he had discussed farmers, all of us knew the discussion could not have just been confined to floods and droughts. After Uddhav Thackeray was sworn in as the chief minister there were reports from New Delhi that Pawar had set two conditions for support to the BJP – his daughter Supriya Sule be inducted as the Union agriculture minister in the Modi cabinet and that Devendra Fadnavis be dropped as the chief minister. We were told that Modi had turned down both conditions and then the BJP had put its Plan B into action – breaking Pawar’s party and family by getting Ajit Pawar and his supporters on board to secure a majority in the Vidhan Sabha.
Having known and reported on Pawar and his shenanigans for over three decades, I knew something was wrong with that presumption. Pawar is not one to burn his bridges with the masses, does not express his desires openly (in the sense of demanding a berth for his daughter, but would rather wait or manipulate the situation such that there would be no alternative solutions) and never reveals before time who he has on target (he would manipulate the situation again). Over the past five years, he has come through a bitter struggle among his party stalwarts over whether to ally with the BJP or stay on the secular side of the divide. There was an occasion at an internal party meet around three years ago when these two groups were said to have even clashed with each other, even as Pawar looked on and stayed silent and then abruptly decided the NCP would stay secular. He took the wind out of the sails of the pro-BJP group and began to make overtures to the Congress again after breaking ties with it in 2014.
Many factors were responsible for that decision. The Congress had been doing much better than the NCP at the local self-government elections. The core NCP voters were getting confused by Pawar’s blow-hot-blow-cold attitude vis-à-vis Narendra Modi. But, more importantly, as a veteran politician with five decades of grassroots experience, he knew any alignment with the new BJP, which believed in taking no prisoners and yielding no ground, would mean losing their distinct cultural identity.
That is why he evoked Marathi-Maratha sub-nationalism when he was needled by the ruling dispensation with a case by the Enforcement Directorate and said, “I am a mard Maratha. Marathas have never yielded to the Delhi sultanate.”
Pawar took that ethos of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj to the masses and, with the Shiv Sena ceding that space by subsuming itself in the BJP’s Hindutva rhetoric, got the astounding result he did at the October state elections.
That is why I found it strange that he should seek a cabinet berth for his daughter in return to ally with the BJP. But now Pawar in a very uncharacteristic move has stunned everybody by revealing to a Marathi channel that it was not he who sought the cabinet berth for his daughter, but it was Modi who made the offer to him as a quid pro quo for NCP support to the Maharashtra government. Now whatever that revelation does to his cordial relations with Modi, it is obvious Pawar has made up his mind about which side he is on and drawn the battle lines for the future when a series of local self-government elections are due and the NCP is in desperate need to wrest some of those bodies from the BJP, particularly on his home turf of Pune. He knows Maharashtra continues with its socialist ethos based on the philosophies of Jyotiba Phule, Shahu Maharaj and Dr BR Ambedkar, as proven by the Assembly results, and is not about to lose that advantage.
But did he really ask for Devendra Fadnavis’s sacking, considering Fadnavis had mocked him beyond decent proportions during the polls? I doubt that too. Pawar simply created a situation where Fadnavis would have no choice but to quit office. The famous boxer Muhammad Ali once said about his game, “You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.”
Fadnavis clearly forgot that Pawar began life in the ring as a wrestler with the same pugnacity. He should never have punched above his weight vis-à-vis Pawar.
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