What were BJP leader Yashwant Sinha and Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar doing in Akola at the same time in December 2017? Pawar was ostensibly participating in the Jan Akrosh Andolan spearheaded by the Congress since October 2017, while Sinha, not previously known to have fought for farmers’ issues, was attempting to secure them minimum support prices and minimise their losses due to the Pink Bollworm infestation in almost the entire cotton crop this season. Sinha also ended up in jail for three days during that agitation. Pawar's backing, however, forced the Devendra Fadnavis government to concede Sinha’s demands.
That Sinha launched the National Forum, a political action group comprising a mix of leaders from multiple political parties and farmers’ representatives, in New Delhi on January 30—the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's martyrdom—then is no surprise. For even without its NCP members, and Sinha's emphasis on farmers' issues, it has 'Pawar' written all over it. For months Pawar has been urged by his supporters to do a Jayaprakash Narayan act on Narendra Modi, but Pawar either had no stomach for it, or did not wish to tread a revolutionary path at that juncture.
However, on January 26, he quietly put together a 'Save the Constitution' rally in Mumbai that not only brought together 18 political parties but also diverse sections of civil society that rattled the Maharashtra government, so much so that Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis accused these opposition parties of attempting to drown out the voice of the party in power!
One reason why Fadnavis may have gotten so needled is that while the 'Save the Constitution' rally had diverse participants without much prior mobilisation or fanfare, the BJP's counter Samvidhaan Sanmaan Tiranga (Respect the Constitution and the tricolour) yatra, despite much advertising, saw participation of only committed BJP workers who were bussed in from various parts of Mumbai. Conspicuous by its absence was the Shiv Sena, BJP's ally in the Maharashtra government, who was, of course, not welcome at the 'Save the Constitution' rally. But that does not mean that the Sena is not part of Sharad Pawar's scheme of things.
The Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra have virtually come to terms with the fact that they need to consolidate their votebanks by reviving their alliance. For they are losing far more elections without each other than the Sena and BJP which, contrarily, are winning more seats when they contest separately.
There is no love lost between the Shiv Sena and the BJP and Uddhav Thackeray has just sworn to go it alone at the next elections as well. He may not have had the confidence to kick the BJP in the teeth but for the covert support his party is receiving from Sharad Pawar. He and various party functionaries have been holding private confabulations with the NCP chief and, according to political observers, they are waiting to see how well the BJP does in the next series of state elections, or if the Narendra Modi government advances the Lok Sabha polls.
Former Deputy CM of Maharashtra Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar’s nephew, has already spoken about the possibility of the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena coming together to oust the BJP from government and eventually defeat it electorally. But that is a suggestion that leaves the Congress cold. It cannot be seen to be hobnobbing with a party that has had a notorious communal reputation in the past, when it was too extreme even for the BJP.
But the Shiv Sena has toned down the aggressive rhetoric and changed course under Uddhav Thackeray. With both pursuing a regional agenda, it might not be difficult for the NCP to ally with the Sena, given Pawar's old ties with Bal Thackeray. But, say sources, the NCP also has a secular canvas and would like to keep its fondness for the Sena strictly under wraps. According to some, an exercise has already begun to identify the weaker seats of the BJP and the strongest party in a position to defeat it. The exercise seems to be a tripartite one, wherein the other two parties will put up a token candidate against the BJP and give the potential winner all possible support to win that seat.
This move is being spearheaded by Pawar, with local Congress and Sena leaders not offering much resistance to what will essentially mean the sacrifice of a number of seats each in order to defeat the common foe. However, this arrangement can work only at a future election, and it is unlikely that the three will come together to topple the Fadnavis government in the near future.
So far Congress leaders are keeping their silence and a safe distance from the Shiv Sena. But in a battle for their very survival, they are willing to follow Pawar's lead. So is the Shiv Sena.
Pawar is also attempting alliances at the national level, including one of parties wary of an open alliance with the Congress but opposed to the BJP, such as the Biju Janata Dal, Janata Dal Secular, Trinamool Congress, sections of the Left, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party. Pawar is said to be attempting this Third Front to help these parties safeguard their respective turf. However, the intention is not to form a third pole at the national level. These parties could still all come together with the Congress in a post-poll alliance, as happened during the UPA. "But this will not be called UPA," says one NCP stalwart not wishing to be identified. 'And Pawarsaheb is not doing this without consulting the top Congress leadership."