'The old man and the sea of people'

The groundswell of support for Sharad Pawar as he hits the campaign trail gives the rebels cold feet in taking over the party

NCP chief Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra's Karad on Monday (Photo courtesy @PawarSpeaks/Twitter)
NCP chief Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra's Karad on Monday (Photo courtesy @PawarSpeaks/Twitter)

Sujata Anandan

Days before he passed away in 2012 of an illness, former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh had said about Ajit Pawar, “He has made more money in ten years between 1999 and 2009 as an irrigation minister than Sharad Pawar did in his whole life time. He does not need his uncle any more - except he is not sure if he will ever win an election without the latter’s blessing.”

For the bulk of those ten years, Deshmukh had been chief minister of Maharashtra and signing off on Ajit's files. His involvement in the irrigation scam had just been exposed and Ajit had been forced to resign as finance minister from the cabinet of Prithviraj Chavan. He tried to rally other NCP men, including ministers, around him, but none of them were certain of their futures were they to resign as ministers and split the party along with Ajit. Soon Ajit, described by political observer Charu Satam, “ as a man more power hungry than even his uncle ever was”,  was back in the cabinet much to the disgust of Chavan who too said, “Ajit knows he is nothing without power, unlike his uncle who was always a grassroots man.”

Those statements seemed very apt as events played out in Maharashtra a day after the split. Ajit Pawar’s meetings were focussed on money and finances – mostly a crib that if you did not belong to the ruling party at the Centre, the Modi regime never gave you any funds for development and both your state and  constituency suffered. That was his justification for joining up with the BJP.

Sharad Pawar, on the other hand, had hit the roads early morning and the kind of crowds that thronged his path and meetings at Karad and Satara, says a Marathi journalist who was present on the occasion, brought to mind Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.

“Only, in this instance the sea was an ocean of people and they were people from all communities – nomads, tribals, shepherds,backward classes, Marathas, Muslims and others." The meeting with backward communities was scheduled before the split but Sunday’s events swelled the crowds in support of Sharad Pawar.

“Pawar showed the same grit and determination in drawing in the people  that Hemingway’s old man did in reeling  in the fish. But the people also rallied round him because he has defined this battle as one between ideology and money. He evoked the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar ethos of Maharashtra and said he will not sway from that ideology ever. He believes in equality of religions and castes and will do everything  to defeat money power and communal forces, in the country.”

Back in Bombay, perhaps there was no one better than Jitendra Awhad, for long years his Man Friday, to take that campaign forward. Amid objections from Ajit and Praful Patel for his appointment as leader of the Opposition (for they claim the prerogative is theirs as they own the party now), Awhad surrounded by a lot of fresh new and young faces noone  had ever seen before, challenged Ajit and the others to dismiss him from the post to which he was legitimately  appointed by state NCP president Jayant Patil.

Both Awhad and Patil had posted pictures of themselves with Sharad Pawar stating they stood by their party president, declaring him as their Guru on Guru Purnima day today, offering their support as Guru dakshina   and saying they will stand by his side until their last breath. Awhad evoked the Supreme Court ruling in the Uddhav Thackeray case saying it is the prerogative of the party president to appoint a chief whip and a leader of the House or opposition.

Since Jayant Patil is the NCP Maharashtra president, so appointed by Sharad Pawar, the national president, he has every right to take that decision, asserted Awhad. The Speaker of the Maharashtra Assembly is now likely to be in a quandary deciding two such cases but the NCP’s is more complicated.

After the Shiv Sena split, Eknath Shinde had declared himself as the new party president. Looking  at the groundswell of support for Sharad Pawar today, neither Praful Patel nor Ajit Pawar had the guts to claim that Sharad Pawar was not the NCP president. So the argument was that Pawar’s decision on Jayant Patil was final, as was Patil’s on Awhad.

Caught in that cleft stick, both Patel and Ajit refused comment and by the end of the day it was apparent that it will not be so easy for the rebels to take over the party. Sources reveal that Sharad Pawar knew of the attempts at a coup on Saturday night after his nephew silently resigned to the Speaker as leader of the opposition in the Assembly but chose to allow things to run their course. (Never underestimate Sharad Pawar – one of his closest supporters is the chairman of the Legislative Council who is the father-in-law of the Assembly Speaker.)

Pawar was also fully cognisant of two coup attempts in recent months - the first in May this year when his nephew, amply aided by Praful Patel, attempted to force him into retirement and he turned the tables on them. The second was when Ajit and Chhagan Bhujbal got together two weeks ago to demand a division  of party posts between a Maratha and an OBC.

“The attempt was to seize the party from within. Ajit wanted to displace Jayant Patil as state president and hand over leader  of Opposition post to Bhujbal. So they would have had complete control over the party in both the House and outside it. Patel as working president would have taken over the party at the centre. They would have completely isolated Sharad Pawar,” says Hemant Desai, veteran political analyst.

But while the support Pawar has received from the masses within the day has compelled them into a rethink, says Desai, Pawar sees this adversity as an opportunity to rally a new support base round his daughter Supriya Sule who so far has been unacceptable to the veterans in the NCP whether they be Pawar loyalists or Ajit supporters.

That is why Awhad made an appearance with young new faces and is also known to support Rohit Pawar,  the great-nephew of Sharad Pawar, who is the other youngster Pawar is bent on building up as the future of his party.

Asked at a press meet who he thought was his most trustworthy supporter, Sharad Pawar raised his hand and jocularly quipped “Sharad Pawar!”

It raised many laughs but few missed the poignancy of that quip. He cannot even trust his nephew and his close friend Patel who has been glued to his side for decades, both owing everything they have to him. As he rebuilds his party from the scratch, at the age of 83, he must now trust only himself.

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