There are many similarities between Sharad Pawar and Narendra Modi. But, increasingly, there is one gaping fundamental difference. Both desperately wanted to be Prime Minister. One got there, twice over, the other missed the bus more than once.
Both are kind of crony capitalists, though, as it becomes obvious with each passing day, Pawar knows the art of balancing the people’s interests against those of the rich, self-centred capitalists and he perhaps pioneered the art of benefitting both the classes and the masses simultaneously in one go. For example, when India opened up its economy in the early 1990s, Pawar was the first political leader to jump into the opportunity with both hands and feet.
“They (the multinational companies) are not going to come to India to do charity. They are here to make profit. But if they are making money out of us, we have to make sure, we get something out of them too,” he had said at the time.
So in his constituency of Baramati, he made sure McDonald’s sourced the cheese for their burgers all over their Indian outlets from the Dynamix Dairy he had helped set up to benefit farmers; all the milk for the yogurts that companies like Brittania and Nestle produced came from milk maids in Baramati and with his active help, the first co-operative bank for women was set up for these milk maids who were made the centre of dairying activity in the region. It generated employment and income for the poor, profits for the rich. Both were happy. No wonder the Pawars have never lost an election from Baramati.
But this grassroots connect and commitment to improving the fortunes of the poor is not the only difference between Modi, the rich man’s politician and Pawar, the people’s friend.
Modi is a hyperbolic demagogue with very little lasting accomplishment on the ground. Pawar, despite touching the life of every common man or woman within his ambit, is inarticulate about his achievements, strangely wary of tomtomming those accomplishments and, therefore, disregarded and goes largely unacknowledged for those works by the media who see him as just another power-hungry politician in the mould of Modi.
But even that does not adequately distinguish Pawar from the BJP top leader. Modi is an exclusivist majoritarian riding the wave of Hindutvawadi hatred for Muslims and other minorities. Some of Pawar’s best friends and advisors have been Muslims. For example, Jabbar Patel, the filmmaker, or the social reformist Hamid Dalwai who had undertaken to rid Muslim society of ills like triple talaq and polygamy long before it became a political tool for the BJP.
‘Beti bachao, beti padhao’ is a matter of mere lip service to Narendra Modi. Pawar, during his last term as chief minister of Maharashtra actually empowered women by passing a bill that allowed them equal rights to inherit landed property and gave women in the villages the right to vote out liquor shops by a fifty percent majority in case their lives were being destroyed by drunken husbands. It is a unique law anywhere in the world and today village after village in Maharashtra stands free of liquor and alcoholism, even if it means a loss to the exchequer in terms of excise duties.
But the most fundamental difference between Pawar and Modi is that the former swears by the Constitution of India, is committed to all its goals and retains the Nehruvian ethos he grew up in and one that is deeply ingrained into his DNA. Modi, of course, is neither committed to the Constitution which is just a stumbling block to him — as seen in the arbitrary abrogation of Article 370 — nor does he believe in Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.
However, it is Pawar’s commitment to all his ideals, despite the flaws in his personal conduct — like the betrayal of his mentor and political Godfather YB Chavan or splitting the Congress for selfish interests, not once but twice (first in 1978, then in 1999) — makes Pawar the only man today capable of mounting a challenge to Narendra Modi in Maharashtra and standing a good chance of succeeding.
He has already given us a glimpse of what he is capable of. The manner in which he defeated the government’s efforts to arm twist him by misusing the Enforcement Directorate could only have been done by a leader certain of his grassroots support and the faith of the people in his leadership.
Pawar is not the kind of politician who believes in vitiating the law and order. Yet, the gathering of his supporters as he planned to visit the ED offices in Mumbai days before the Maharashtra elections on their registering an FIR against him, threatened just that, compelling the authorities to beg him to desist.
He obliged but that outpouring of support was a fair indicator of the way the elections might go, though no one would have believed then that Pawar would rescue both his party and the Congress and post such good results despite the fact that the BJP attempted to destroy the morale of both by buying up their stalwarts and leaving them with virtually no direction.
But Pawar was always the cat with nine lives. That setback was his opportunity and since he left Mumbai after the ED fiasco, he did not return home until the last vote was cast at the elections. The results have reinforced his grassroots leadership and enhanced his elder statesman status.
Pawar has single handedly busted the myth of the Modi-Amit Shah juggernaut and it is obvious they can be defeated at the grassroots despite their enormous money and muscle power. But Pawar cannot do it alone outside of Maharashtra, nor merely with the NCP.
He needs the complete backing of the Congress as he got from both Sonia Gandhi and the state leadership at the Maharashtra elections. But that was only one state, albeit a significant one. To replicate the success nationally, Pawar would need to merge his NCP in the Congress and the Congress would need to co-operate with him fully and hand him the baton of leadership in some form or the other that makes it worth his while to take up the challenge.
The survival of both depends upon this. And with them the survival of the nation.