Why Sharad Pawar looks in charge even after he’s quit

Only yesterday, his nephew Ajit Pawar had seemed to bear him a grudge for continuing endlessly in active politics

Sharad Pawar (Getty Images)
Sharad Pawar (Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

To those who have been lately dismissing Sharad Pawar as an old man past his sell-by date, it might be advisable to paraphrase Shakespeare from 'Macbeth' - who would have thought the elderly leader would still have so much chutzpah yet left in him.

Only yesterday, his nephew Ajit Pawar had seemed to bear him a grudge for continuing endlessly in active politics. Without naming his uncle, Ajit said, "Sometimes, the elders need to step aside to make way for the younger people."

 It was seen as an oblique remark against Sharad Pawar's fierce grip on the Nationalist Congress Party with Ajit Pawar for long wishing he was the Number One.

A day later, at the relaunch of his 2017 autobiography, Pawar created a minor earthquake by resigning as party president, proving there was none better than him at turning the tables on rivals, even if they be from his own family. Ajit could never hope for the kind of support that rose instantly for Sharad Pawar. Those attending his book launch were in a state of utter shock, urged him to roll back his decision, suggested that entire Maharashtra would be agitated if he did not, that the NCP without Sharad Pawar would not get even a handful of votes, just as the Congress had suffered without the Gandhis at the helm at one point of time. They burst into tears, threw themselves at his feet, spoke in choked voices even as he looked on expressionless. 

Pawar marked 63 straight years in active politics on May 1 this year (he started in 1960). Some would say it is high time he retired. However as his supporters erupted in protest he made it clear he was not "retiring", only "resigning" from a party post and he would continue with the business of politics as usual. Which, while bringing relief to the section of supporters who do not wish for a leadership change, is no comfort to the likes of Ajit and his men who will then continue to be reigned over by Pawar senior's men - a four member committee of the NCP, which includes his right hand Praful Patel and party Maharashtra president Jayant Patil, who will decide who the next president should be or if Pawar Sr.  should cede to his supporters' demands and return to his post. Neither Patel nor Patil or even  Chhagan Bhujbal, another committee member,  are quite fans of Ajit Pawar, in fact they are bitterly opposed to Ajit. The NCP thus stands on the verge of a split down the middle, as there are also two other groups within the party, one in favour of alliance with the BJP (a move that might be supported by Patel) and one who want no dealings with the saffron party (Patil, Bhujbal, Jitendra Awhad, Anil Deshmukh  and others).

Political analysts who too were taken by surprise thus believe that Pawar is only gathering his flock together and reasserting his authority in the party and family. He has the example of Bal Thackeray before him who had similarly resigned as Shiv Sena chief after similar family dissent but returned after emotional outpouring by his supporters. Today, the sight of Jayant Patil, a London School of Economics graduate and a finsncial whiz -  bursting into tears at the news of Pawar's exit was a scene out of the bizarre and youths threatening to immolate themselves might be sufficient cause for Pawar Senior to 4oll back his decision. There are shades here of how he had manipulated emotional support against the Enforcement Directorate, compelling even the Mumbai police commissioner to beg him to withdraw his d3cision 5o March on the ED office. The ruling BJP did not dare finger him again.

Pawar has also always been, despite his intermittent antagonism towards the Nehru-Gandhis, impressed by how Sonia Gandhi resigned and rallied Congressmen to her when he himself had split the party in 1999, leaving him isolated with just a handful of supporters. That is what he seems to be doing to his nephew now.

But, apart from all that, it is also a hugely diversionary tactic aimed at the BJP. The NCP has been on the target of the ruling party for long and the most vulnerable leader now is Ajit. The results of market committee elections across Maharashtra on Sunday prove that the rural mood vests with the Maha Vikas Aghadi. The NCP’s core base is among the farmers and the party cannot thus afford an alliance with the saffron party. Moreover, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde has indicated if the NCP walks into his government, he walks out with his supporters  and Ajit Pawar is persona non grata to his faction of the Shiv Sena.

Under the circumstances, the Pawars need to buy time until the Lok Sabha elections are close and the model code sets in – which is still more than six months away. So Pawar Senior is now doing what he does best – confuse and confound everybody, including the BJP.

But the move has also brought him support from  leaders of the Congress who might have been otherwise hostile to him (Shiv Sena (UBT) leaders in any case are wholly dependent on his good offices). Maharashtra Congress president Nana Patole has expressed his sorrow at Pawar’s resignation and former chief minister Ashok Chavan, whose father was a party rival before Pawar split the Congress, has also expressed the view that the MVA needs him to shepherd them into the next election. 

Pawar always plays his cards very close to his chest, never letting his left hand know what his right hand is doing. Today his right hand Praful Patel too expressed great shock at the unexpected and sudden decision.

We have not yet heard the end of thus episode. Pawar, his supporters are certain, still has a few tricks up his sleeve before he closes this chapter . 

(With inputs from Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra)

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