Two years of MVA govt: The lion but not in winter
Despite 54 years in active politics, Sharad Pawar remains a strongman and his experience and wisdom are holding the coalition together
It all began in September 2019 with excessive rainfall. Devendra Fadnavis was confident that BJP would sweep the election. Cocky as ever, he had no time for farmers whose crops and cattle had gone under water. It was Sharad Pawar who got his feet wet, sat with farmers and advised them on how to recover their losses and seek compensation.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah at an election rally sneered at Pawar. “What did he do for farmers when he was agriculture minister that he should be so concerned about them now!” “Whatever I may have done or not done, at least I have not gone to the jail," Pawar snapped back.
Soon thereafter, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) decided to summon Pawar. “I am a mard Maratha (macho Maratha man). I do not take nonsense from the lungya-sungyas (Tom and Dicks) of this world," Pawar declared derisively. Pawar also declared his decision to pay the ED a visit. "I am afraid of no one. Let them throw me into prison if they like, snapped the 78-year-old leader. Unnerved, the ED rushed to dissuade him from arriving at their office.
Under the circumstances the BJP did not get the clean sweep it expected and both Shah and Fadnavis would have rued the call they took to beard the lion in his den. Fadnavis's needling of Pawar as an old man past his sell-by date proved costly for the BJP. Pawar moved heaven and earth to persuade a reluctant Congress to come on board the MVA coalition, toned down Shiv Sena's militant tendencies and became a sort of pitamaah to the MVA government.
Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut once asked him if he sees himself as the ‘Remote Control’ of the government or as its Headmaster. Pawar was not amused, recalls a chastened Raut. He did not like either description.
But bureaucrats in Maharashtra, who always admired Pawar, now feel comfortable with chief minister Uddhav Thackeray's respectful dealing with them. They attribute it to Pawar's tutoring of Thackeray—which is in sharp contrast to the arrogance they were used to during the tenure of Fadnavis and the first Shiv Sena chief minister Manohar Joshi.
Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule recalls the terrible scolding she received from her father a while ago for addressing an IAS officer with the familiar ‘Tu’ in Marathi. “After the officer left, my father riled at me. I should have been more respectful and used the term ‘aap’, he told me.
Sule remonstrated that she was over 50 years in age and the officer was much younger. But that argument didn't wash. An upset Pawar told her that the officer had to be brighter than her to get into the IAS. “I was to be respectful to bureaucrats at all times, even if they happened to be younger,” Sule remembers being told.
This approach from an old warhorse explains why so many bureaucrats still look up to Pawar and trust his wisdom. It also explains why the MVA Government has functioned more smoothly than the government headed by Fadnavis, who complained that 60 percent of the bureaucracy was not co-operating with him. Pawar's strong faith in Nehruvian socialism and secularism is said to have been instrumental in tempering the Shiv Sena, which has apologised for earlier mixing religion with politics. Public confidence in the government has risen as a result.
There is no politician quite like Sharad Pawar. After fifty-four unbroken years in active politics, he is still going strong despite his health issues.
In 2019 when BJP poached most of his party, leaving him with just a handful of supporters, it looked as the end of the road for him. Anil Deshmukh was among those who stood by him. Now that the BJP Government at the Centre and BJP in the state have targeted Deshmukh, political observers expect Pawar to hit back.
He does not forgive such slights easily, they say. All those who had quit his party are restless to return. But Pawar is in no hurry to take them back. He will pull the carpet from under the BJP's feet at a time of his own choosing.
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)