Sharad Pawar reckons that the NCP has value as a united, going concern, not as a gaggle of leaders in search of followers, notes Shreekant Sambrani.
Lal Krishna Advani, along with his lifelong colleague Atal Bihari Vajpayee, built up the Bharatiya Janata Party from scratch through hard toil.
But Advani deferred to Vajpayee as the party’s prime ministerial candidate when the top post appeared within its grasp. He had reckoned, rightly as it turned out, that Vajpayee would be more acceptable as the leader of the BJP-led coalition to its potential partners.
He waited long for the prime ministership, but saw it slip away permanently when his one-time protege Narendra Modi led the BJP to a majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014.
Pranab Mukherjee, who rose through the Congress ranks by his sheer survival abilities, had to be content with being kicked upstairs to Rashtrapati Bhavan, Sonia Gandhi denying him twice the prime minister’s office he so coveted for long, favouring Manmohan Singh instead.
Sharad Pawar’s case is entirely different. He twice lost the Congress leadership race (a prerequisite for being the prime minister of a Congress government).
The first loss was in 1991 when he was the Maharashtra chief minister.
He landed in New Delhi in the aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination to claim the throne as the Congress had won a near majority in the general election.
But wily old fox Narasimha Rao, who had packed his bags to head home to Hyderabad for a well-earned retirement, pipped him to the post.
Pawar became defence minister and returned to state politics, ostensibly to restore law and order after the 1993 riots, but really because Rao did not want a potent competitor in his backyard.
His next chance appeared when the Vajpayee government lost the vote of confidence in 1999.
Pawar was then the Leader of the Opposition and expected to lead the new government.
But the Congress failed to garner majority support even after Sonia Gandhi had famously said, ‘We have 273.’
She assumed the party leadership as Pawar walked out protesting the elevation of the foreign-born Gandhi to the top leadership of the party.
Pawar’s Nationalist Congress never amounted to much and finally shrunk to his home state of Maharashtra, and that too, to its western region.
He never put in the effort to build his party as Advani had done for the BJP. Possibly, he was not capable of it. Neither was he effective on the stump.
NCP’s best Lok Sabha in showing the first two decades of this century was barely in double figures.
Its organisation outside the sugar belt of Western Maharashtra was non-existent. It was truly a fringe party, one of the many that exist in India.
It was deemed a national party only because of the Election Commission’s rather liberal yardsticks defining the status of a party (it has now lost that status as well).
Yet its leader Pawar was on everyone’s list of potential prime ministers. It would have taken a minor miracle for that to have turned into reality.
He could have been acceptable as a compromise candidate to a coalition of parties deeply suspicious of their partners’ agenda.
That never happened, since first the Congress and then the BJP were dominant parties.
Pawar’s star started fading rather rapidly.
His associates from the rest of the country began leaving the NCP, making it just another regional, family-tied, party, the likes of which this column discussed in its last edition.
What Pawar lacked was personal charisma and oratorical skills. But he more than made up for these shortcomings by his singular political acumen.
He is arguably the leader with the greatest political savvy my generation has seen. That enabled him to get elected to the Maharashtra assembly from what turned out to be his pocket borough of Baramati in Pune district when he was just 27. He held that seat for nearly the next quarter century before entering the Lok Sabha.
He was seen as Y B Chavan’s protege. Chavan got him inducted into state cabinets as a future leader. Pawar dutifully followed Chavan when the Congress split in 1977.
But he upstaged his mentor the next year by managing a successful coup against then Maharashtra chief minister Vasantdada Patil, also a Chavan confidant, and a big name in the sugar co-operative dominated politics of Western Maharashtra.
Pawar became the country’s youngest chief minister in 1978 (he was 38).
His government was an unlikely coalition of disparate partners from the Peasants and Workers Party, the then Janata Party (which included the erstwhile Jan Sangh), Independents and other smaller groupings.
He managed the tight rope walk well. He lost his footing in 1980, when Indira Gandhi dismissed the state government in 1980.
Pawar has since been in and out of the Congress and been the chief minister of Maharashtra twice more, between 1988-1991 and 1993-1995, never completing the full term of office.
There have been several other chief ministers of Maharashtra, from the Congress as well as other parties and some with very long tenures (Vasantrao Naik’s lasted 11 years), but in the public mind Pawar’s association as the strong man of Maharashtra is possibly second only to that of Y B Chavan.
Pawar’s innate sensitivity was not restricted to electoral politics alone, but extended to its source in Maharashtra, the state’s agriculture.
Pawar knew well that while Mumbai provided the financial heft to the state, it was agriculture in the predominantly dry state that drove its politics.
Rather than depend solely on the water-guzzling sugarcane economy, he pursued wise policies of creating percolation tanks and water conservation to bring some stability to the agrarian state which frequently suffered droughts or prolonged dry spells.
He also encouraged co-operatives for marketing other cash crops, mostly vegetables. That allowed him to control the powerful onion lobby of the state, based in Lasalgaon in Nashik district.
His concern for the welfare of the state peasantry was most effectively translated into a greatly successful horticulture development programme he launched under the state’s employment guarantee scheme in 1989.
This encouraged plantation of fruit orchards, mainly but not exclusively mango, and vegetable cultivation, with the usual mix of subsidies, provision of planting material, advice and help in marketing.
As a result, Maharashtra consolidated its position as the leading horticulture producer in the country.
Hitherto dry areas such as Marathwada and Vidarbha became greener with new mango orchards and restored citrus gardens respectively.
Pawar wisely refrained from promoting their processing as he well knew that the best returns were from marketing fresh produce.
He once said that he wished to turne the coastal Konkan region into India’s California. A grandiose slogan perhaps, but it gives a flavour of Pawar’s vision.
Having long engaged with the elite of India’s financial capital, Pawar also developed insights into the needs of the business community.
In a striking address to the Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1988, he advocated the removal of suffocating controls on businesses for them to achieve their potential and contribute to the development of the country.
He openly praised the policies of Margaret Thatcher, which was considered anathema in India at that time. The Narasimha Rao liberalisation of the Indian economy was still three years away.
Pawar’s favouring of corporate enterprise is reflected in the ventures in Baramati. While the sugar factory is a co-operative, the Dynamix dairy set up there is in the corporate sector, being the contract processor for Britannia Foods.
Pawar backed this enterprise even during the heyday of the champion of co-operative dairying, Verghese Kurien, and yet managed to retain the most cordial relations with the dairy titan.
Pawar broke ranks with what seemed to be the united opposition on the issue of establishing a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the affairs of the Gautam Adani empire.
He thought that both the disruption of Parliament and the demand for a JPC would be counterproductive and favoured the Supreme Court-led probe instead (many thought this was a fig leaf to cover his pro-Adani bias).
He has spoken highly of Adani, and welcomed him to Baramati. He also criticised the disclosures by the Hindenburg group as motivated and wanted them to be investigated as well.
But such is Pawar’s hold over the Opposition space in India that while there were sotto voce insinuations regarding his position on the issue, no one dared to publicly denounce or condemn him.
All through its duration, Pawar’s political career was smoothly integrated with his family.
The Pawar fiefdom purred like a well-oiled machine.
His elder brother Dinkar (popularly called Appasaheb) was the presiding deity over the Baramati farms and related issues (some say that he was responsible for shaping many of Sharad Pawar’s insights into agriculture and rural India).
His younger brother Pratap managed to acquire an influential old Marathi newspaper from Pune, Sakal, from the family trust of its founder N B Parulekar. It is now a major shaper of public opinion in the state.
The Pawar NextGen gravitated to politics, to no one’s great surprise.
The nephew Ajit has been a long-time member of the state assembly and a minister.
While he displays some of the older Pawar’s administrative skills, he is also known for his quick temper bordering on arrogance.
He was long in charge of the irrigation portfolio, among the most coveted ones in view of the patronage it provides. There have been rumours, as yet unproven, of corruption and money-making.
His most significant act was his jumping the NCP ship to join Devendra Fadnavis as deputy chief minister in a one-and-a-half day government hastily sworn in after the inconclusive 2019 elections.
He returned ‘home’ after being implored to do so by his cousin Supriya Sule, Sharad Pawar’s daughter.
She and her father have alternated between them the Baramati Lok Sabha seat. She is quite active and vocal on the Opposition benches but always soft-spoken.
Appasaheb Pawar’s grandson Rohit is now a member of the state assembly. Ajit Pawar’s son Parth is also said to be nursing political aspirations.
One of Sharad Pawar’s close associates and a former NCP president in Maharashtra, Dr Padamsinh Patil, has been a member of the state government holding various portfolios including irrigation.
His step sister is married to Ajit Pawar. Patil’s reputation came under a cloud with charges of murder and misappropriation of resources from the sugar co-operative he controlled. But his son found a berth in Maharashtra government.
All this should sound not at all exceptional for those who read my last column, All In The Family.
By common consensus, Sharad Pawar was the chief architect and manager of that most unlikely coalition of the Congress, NCP and the undivided Shiv Sena.
The troika ran the state of Maharashtra under the banner of Maha Vikas Aghadi, with Uddhav Thackeray as the titular chief minister.
The power behind the throne and the glue that held the contraption together was, of course, Pawar at all times.
But even his legendary skills at managing a motely crowd were no match for the muscle and influence of the BJP, which effectively pulled the rug from under the MVA and reduced Pawar to an elder statesman past his prime, giving a different meaning to the sobriquet often employed to describe him, the Bhishma Pitamaha of Maharashtra politics.
That brings us to possibly the last act of the long political drama of Sharad Pawar.
On May 2, the day after Maharashtra Foundation Day, he released the next instalment of his autobiography, Lok Maaze Sangati (People Are My Companions) in Mumbai at the Y B Chavan auditorium. He was flanked by his family and virtually the entire NCP top leadership.
The date, the location and the company all assume symbolic significance for what was to follow.
Pawar announced that he would step down as the NCP president, but he was not retiring from politics.
Virtual pandemonium broke out after that. Ajit Pawar got up and said that Pawar Saheb remains the tallest leader and can never be replaced, they will all follow him no matter what.
Seasoned Jayant Patil, who has been the state deputy chief minister, got up to say something, but was so overcome with emotion that he sat down without uttering a word. Another senior leader, Jitendra Awhad, also suffered the same trauma.
The attending crowd kept shouting slogans asking Pawar to withdraw his announcement.
All through this, Pawar sat unmoved, a Lear-like figure surrounded by many heirs apparent, but none meeting his approval.
Then came the announcement that Pawar would like a couple of days to think over the matter and a final decision would come thereafter, along with setting up of a process to select a successor if needed.
Pawar is not expected to relent. A widely circulated theory has it that Sule will be named the national president and Ajit Pawar left in charge of Maharashtra. But at the moment it remains a theory.
The question everyone is asking is, why did Pawar do what he did and why now.
Recently the air has been rife with rumours of Ajit Pawar with a sizeable number of NCP MLAs about to go over to the BJP any time now.
Cognoscenti of the Maharashtra political scene believe that Pawar’s announcement of stepping down would unite the party behind him and thwart any such move.
It would also clear the way for Sule’s succession. They call it the Pawar masterstroke.
This columnist agrees that it is a masterstroke, but not for the reason mentioned.
Pawar knows well that the NCP is and has always been an extension of his political persona. It has never had an independent existence. At 82, he is no spring chicken and the day would come when he would not be able to guide the affairs of his outfit.
The NCP flock would then be ready to be corralled by others. He has also seen that naming a successor is no guarantee of retaining either the glory or the power of the original formation.
He has seen what has happened to the Lok Jan Shakti’s Paswans, the Shiv Sena’s Thackerays and the Akali Dal’s Badals.
Why would fate treat the Pawars or the NCP any differently?
He reckons that the NCP has value as a united, going concern, not as a gaggle of leaders in search of followers.
He must make a sale of this asset to the highest bidder, which would almost certainly be the BJP.
The only other possible bidder, the Congress, appears to be in a state of terminal decline itself. At any rate, there was never been any love lost between the Gandhis and Pawar.
Going over to the BJP as a package deal has another advantage.
Many MVA leaders have faced the heat of the central investigating and enforcement agencies. No one can honestly say that there are no skeletons in the NCP closets.
So buying insurance not only makes sense, but is also an existential necessity.
A patriarch, even in his autumn, must always think of keeping it all in the family.
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