Birthday Tribute: The Importance of Being Sharad Pawar

He has the unique distinction of having 55 uninterrupted years in electoral politics. Even as he enters the 83rd year of his life today, Sharad Pawar continues to influence national politics 

Getty Images
Getty Images

Sujata Anandan

When his daughter Supriya Sule and Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Aaditya Thackeray joined Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra on its Maharashtra leg, the public show of unity had the blessings of Sharad Pawar, who was prevented from undertaking the physical strain himself for health reasons. When the following week Aaditya Thackeray flew to Patna to meet up with Bihar deputy chief minister Tejaswi Yadav, it was once again at the urging of Sharad Pawar.

While Sharad Pawar has been a pillar of strength for secular politics, he is not beyond flirting with those who may not quite value the Constitution when it comes to survival. In that sense, Pawar is a believer in the adage that there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics. He brought Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi on the same stage at the launch of his book on his birthday a few years ago, a unique occurrence in which the two were seen together in a public function. It is unlikely to happen ever again, given the politics of the nation today.

A week after the Patna meeting between Aaditya Thackeray and Tejaswi Yadav, Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi leader Prakash Ambedkar indicated his readiness for an alliance with the SS (UBT), and a backdoor entry to the Maha Vikas Aghadi. It was widely believed to have been engineered by Sharad Pawar.

When Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena accused him of being anti-Brahmin, Pawar quietly organised a private tea party at his home for Brahmin intellectuals for a seemingly meaningless discussion on the state of the nation and society - for none of these intellectuals had any power or authority in government to change the course of things. But just rubbing shoulders with the influencers of their community was enough of a message to put all talk of him being anti-Brahmin to rest.

Since then, Raj Thackeray has dropped using the anti-Brahmin tag for Pawar, while still labelling him as casteist. But Pawar’s fierce commitment to the “Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar” ethos, the pivot on which most of Maharashtrian society rests, has taken the sting off all such allegations and insinuations. Veteran journalist and Rajya Sabha MP Kumar Ketkar says, “Pawar, for all his faults, is the only politician in Maharashtra today who has a sense of history and what the state means to the rest of the country. All other current notables are merely just looking out for themselves.”

It explains why Pawar fought back hard in 2019, when he had his back to the wall, and his success in returning the state to its secular moorings, not once but twice – first at the grassroots election for the Assembly and later in helping form a secular MVA government. He received ample help from the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who had refused to hit or hurt him when he was down. And Pawar remembers, for like an elephant, Pawar forgets neither a favour nor a slight.

The slight had come from then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis who made the fatal mistake of taunting Pawar as an old man past his prime, solicitously advising him to retire from politics. If Pawar hates anything more than being called untrustworthy, it is being labelled an old man. The BJP had earlier poached virtually every MLA from the NCP and given them ll tickets. Every NCP winning candidate appeared to have defected to the BJP.

When a weakened Pawar approached Sonia Gandhi for a formal tie-up (the alliance had been broken in 2014 at Pawar’s own behest), Sonia acquiesced. When he asked more than a fair number of seats, Sonia gave in without a demur. When her party leaders pointed out this was the time to cut Pawar down to size, Sonia Gandhi refused to rub salt into his wounds. When they again protested about giving him the number of seats he wanted, Sonia told her party men, “Show me one Congress leader in Maharashtra with his campaigning skills and capacity to win elections. If I want him to help me win seats, I have to aid him in turn in whichever way possible. I will not bargain with him in his weak moment.”

That touched Pawar. For the first time since he split the Congress in 1999, Pawar worked as hard for the Congress as for the NCP. Congress, which expected to win not more than 20 seats out of 288, stunned itself by winning 44. Pawar maintained the NCP average of 55-plus and the result was a government in Maharashtra.

His rising like a Phoenix from the ashes meant that Fadnavis, who had mocked and taunted him before the elections, now described him as the pitamaha of Indian politics because the MVA miracle that Pawar pulled off reinforced what people had long suspected – Pawar always evens the score, however subtly and however long it may take. And in this instance, Pawar had sent Fadnavis, who had needled Pawar to go home, packing to his own home and induced a restlessness in Fadnavis for nearly three years before a section of the Shiv Sena caved in and he returned as deputy chief minister. But Fadnavis does not dare mock Sharad Pawar any longer. He has learnt his lesson well – it is impossible to defeat Sharad Pawar. In September 2019, Fadnavis had thought Pawar was a thing of the past. A month later, Pawar was again calling all the shots in Maharashtra.

Pawar, who had parted with the Congress in 1999 following Sonia Gandhi’s election as Congress President, is finally at peace with the party. He is silently weaving together all like-minded parties against the BJP and attempting to persuade all those with antipathy towards the Congress that no alliance to defeat the BJP can succeed without taking the Congress along. The Prakash Ambedkar-Uddhav Thackeray meeting was a step in that direction, as Ambedkar’s paranoia for the Congress is well-known. When Pawar is not working with the opposition leaders, he is spending time among his core constituency - the farmers, helping them increase productivity. Last week, after a subtle signalling from the patriarch, the MVA decided to hit the streets against the Shinde government ahead of the winter Assembly session in Maharashtra. 

Those astounded by Pawar’s continuing political stamina even at his age might recall William Shakespeare in Macbeth. To paraphrase, “Who would have thought the (young-old) man would have so much fire in him!”

Pawar is likely to continue giving his detractors a rough time for long. 

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