Sharad Pawar faced with a 'Hobson’s choice' in elections
Pawar is quite aware that neither NCP nor any other regional party is capable of making the numbers without the Congress, much as he would like to go alone, writes Sujata Anandan
Sometimes I cannot help feeling sorry for Sharad Pawar – he can neither live with the Congress nor live without the Congress. He thrice broke away from the Congress - in 1978, 1999 and 2014, splitting the Congress on the first two occasions but each time he returned to the Congress, merging back in 1986, seeking an alliance months after splitting in 1999 and, with barely any option against complete annihilation sans the Congress in 2019, re-sought an alliance. Each time Congress leaders obliged, with all due respect and deference. Yet Pawar has never been able to get over his angst against the ‘mother’ party.
I remember a Maharashtra Congressman telling me that the party had made a big mistake in 1999 by forming a government with the Nationalist Congress Party. “If we had had the patience and the courage to sit a few more years in opposition, then Shiv Sena-BJP would soon have collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions; and NCP would have been like fish out of water. For power is oxygen to Pawar and he would not have survived without our alliance. And in the next election, we would have stormed back to power with a full majority. But now we have become too dependent on Pawar in Maharashtra.”
The 2019 election proved that assessment true – the Congress did not expect to win more than 20 seats out of 288 in the Maharashtra Assembly and party president Sonia Gandhi vested all her hopes in Pawar, conceding everything he asked for, including a post-poll alliance with the Shiv Sena.
Yet Pawar somehow believes the Congress has not done enough for him. Ideally, he would like the Congress to turn itself into a subservient entity, like regional parties and defer to him. The irony is that while he would like the Congress to play second fiddle in the bid for opposition unity, he himself cannot claim that he can win more than half a dozen seats in the Lok Sabha without the Congress.
What is more, for the third time Pawar has been stunned and shocked by unexpected surges of popular support for a Nehru-Gandhi scion. Influenced by businessmen and some socialists, he had dismissed Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1977 as a spent force when she lost the election that year. He was shocked when she returned to power with a happy majority a few years later. Then on her assassination he thought little of Rajiv Gandhi and contested the Lok Sabha polls from Baramati in 1984, hoping to lead a socialist coalition after the elections. Rajiv's brute majority had him stupefied again and soon he sought a merger of his Congress(S) with the Congress(I), knowing that is where power lay and soon became chief minister of Maharashtra for a second time under Rajiv's patronage.
For long he has dismissed Rahul Gandhi as a leader "without any spark" and has had to backtrack on his dismissal of the younger Gandhi as Rahul Gandhi has emerged as the only opposition leader in the country with the courage to take on the Modi government – which even Pawar has not been able to do with any consistency - and he realises he may once again have to cede space to the Congress.
His much-quoted reference to the Congress as a zamindar of yore presiding over diminishing estate is nothing new. He has described the Congress thus for at least three decades now; but to his chagrin the zamindar has not lost his land fast enough and held on to a substantial portion despite all odds. Pawar is quite aware of the fact that there can be no opposition unity without the Congress because neither his NCP nor any other regional party is capable of making the numbers without the national party.
Thrice bitten, though, he would not want to eat crow again, so Pawar is unlikely to break from the Congress a fourth time. The Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance in Maharashtra means all the regional space and a small bit of the overlapping saffron vote has been conceded to the Shiv Sena. So long as the BJP is controlled by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the traditional distrust that Maharashtrians have of Gujaratis, since the days of Morarji Desai and the fight for the control of Bombay (which is still a bone of contention with the Gujarati duo) makes even the Maharashtrian BJP voter gravitate to the Sena. So Pawar now has only the secular space which he must share with the Congress, which is not crumbling as fast as he would like.
So, he must live with the Congress and yet hates it all the way to the polling booth. Not a very enviable position for one who considers himself the pitamaha of Indian politics and is still ambitious about leading the country.
Who would like to be in his shoes?
(The writer is author of the book ‘Maharashtra Maximus—the State, Its People and Politics’)