In 2014, Narendra Modi did not campaign in Baramati, Sharad Pawar's home turf. His daughter Supriya Sule, the sitting MP, was seeking re-election and pitted against her was BJP ally Mahadeo Jankar of the Rashtriya Samajwadi Party. He lost to Sule by 59,000 votes when her previous margin had been nearly two lakh.
Jankar, now a minister in the Maharashtra cabinet, later complained to Modi that had he not chosen to stay away, they could have got Baramati, a seat held by Pawar and his proxy candidates for more than 52 years in a row now.
That is a formidable record to beat and could become a feather in the cap for the BJP, which has put up its own candidate in 2019. But that is not the reason why both Modi and party president Amit Shah have targeted Pawar this election season.
Although the Maratha strongman did not contest the polls this time, because two of his family members were already in the fray (the other being his great nephew Parth Pawar, son of his nephew, former Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar), he has been the master strategist behind the Congress's decision not to put together a uniform alliance across India but go in for state by state tie-ups playing to the core strengths of each regional party and leaving those uncomfortable with it to their own devices.
That is why the Gathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh excludes the Congress and the party did not complicate issues in West Bengal with a tie-up with the Communists who were their rivals in Kerala. Pawar is reported to have told the Congress that the "captain" of each state alliance would have to be different and the Congress must not impose itself on any regional party just because it was more pan-Indian. Taking the advice seriously, the Congress has done just that, though its alliance may seem like a ragtag coalition in its present form. However, even Modi, whose party has more allies than the Congress, does not believe it is a mahamilavat (or adulterated coalition), as he scorns them.
He and Shah have recognised what is afoot and who is behind the game plan. Pawar is the most networked politician in India with lines to even the BJP allies like the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena and potential allies like the Biju Janata Dal. In a post-poll scenario wherein the Congress and other secular parties get more number of seats than the BJP and its allies, Pawar is in the best position to weave together a cohesive formation and bring disparate parties like the CPM and Trinamool Congress on board.
For the first time in years the Congress deferred completely to Pawar this election season and allowed him to call the shots in Maharashtra without conflicts between their party workers at the grassroots. Despite their queasiness about Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray, they gave in to Pawar’s strategy of having him campaign unofficially for their party candidates, including two former chief ministers, Ashok Chavan and Sushil Kumar Shinde. Which is why Modi and Shah have picked on Pawar’s family this election season as they have not to the same extent on Lalu Prasad Yadav's or Mulayam Singh Yadav’s families, multiple members of who are also in the fray like Pawar’s daughter and great nephew.
Soon after the last phase of polling in Maharashtra on April 29, Pawar was in Punjab, ostensibly to study how they made sugar from beet which he said he wanted to replicate in Maharashtra, already flush with sugar cooperatives. But was this the time to study industry or campaign? Punjab is voting in the last phases and the fact was not lost on the BJP. Pawar also plans to visit Odisha, again ostensibly to study the cyclonic devastation but the BJP does not lose sight of the fact that his Nationalist Congress Party was an ally of the BJP even during the UPA years. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s father Biju Patnaik was a close friend of Pawar’s and if anyone can pull Naveen Patnaik into the Congress-led alliance, it is Sharad Pawar.
Moreover, for someone with a reputation of being consistently self-serving, this time Pawar has worked hard for his – and by extension the Congress’s survival. Priding himself on being the sole leader in the country who can be on friendly terms with even the RSS and Narendra Modi, Pawar discovered in the years following 2014 that the BJP is simply not interested in having him on board.
After the 2014 Assembly elections in Maharashtra when the BJP fell short of a majority, the NCP tried to offer support but the BJP preferred the Shiv Sena, its natural ally, and its tantrums to what would have been Pawar's overwhelming grip on the administration.
The NCP cannot survive without power. Even in the intermittent years that Pawar has been briefly out of government, he was influential enough to be named the uncrowned king of Maharashtra. The BJP, however, would not allow him to influence its decisions and in playing a major role during the Lok Sabha elections,
Pawar has actually been eyeing the Assembly elections scheduled for October this year. He knows he needs the Congress on his side to get back to power and so he has pushed himself to the extremes this hot summer, helping the Congress. Of course, he will then play a major role in ensuring a UPA3 happens as smoothly as possible in return for a bigger stake for his party in October.
“I will not rest till I have seen the BJP dislodged from government,” he said during the campaign trail. This time he seems to be serious. And the BJP knows he can accomplish the task. That is why he is their prime target this election season.