Why Sharad Pawar’s ‘defence’ of Adani is not really a jolt to Opposition unity

Pawar keeps making noises that suit him politically, but his commitment to Nehruvian, secular values remains steadfast. And he knows too well that BJP is nobody’s friend

NCP chief Sharad Pawar
NCP chief Sharad Pawar

Sujata Anandan

Sharad Pawar, according to his friends and most bureaucrats who know him well, is fiercely secular and Nehruvian. There is much evidence to support that claim in his actions over the years that have on many an occasion backfired on him for not playing to the agenda of divide and rule.

However, of late, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president is constrained by several private concerns that interfere with his public political positions. And two of those greatest worries are his nephew Ajit Pawar and his right-hand man Praful Patel. Both are under fire from the BJP, the former for an alleged involvement in a Rs 70,000 crore irrigation scam while he was in government, the latter for his decisions with regard to Air India while he was the Union civil aviation minister, and lately of an unsubstantiated claim of involvement with the underworld (a Dawood Ibrahim aide is said to have invested in his posh commercial building in Mumbai).

Pawar, who was targeted just days ahead of the Maharashtra Assembly elections in 2019 by the Enforcement Directorate, defeated their evil designs by seizing the bull by its horns and taking the battle to their own backyard.

The then police commissioner of Mumbai begged him to desist from visiting the ED office as they feared a riot would break out with thousands of Pawar’s angry supporters thronging the city. But he cannot be sure that either Ajit or Patel would be let off as easily.

So, from time to time, Pawar has to pose as a friend of Narendra Modi and the BJP. There may be some genuine regard between him and Modi but that is where his love for the BJP stops. He and Devendra Fadnavis cannot stand each other nor do he and Amit Shah think any good about each other.

When Shah tried to say that Pawar had done nothing for farmers—his core constituency—while he was the Union agriculture minister, Pawar had shot back, “At least I did not do anything that had me thrown into jail.” Relations have been frosty between the two ever since.

Now Shah is the Union home minister, and Pawar is aware that the only one who can overrule Shah is Modi. So he is now making noises that are sympathetic to Modi’s close pal Gautam Adani who was indeed his conduit to Modi even before the latter had become the prime minister.

There is an additional reason to be sympathetic to Adani—the latter has large investments in Maharashtra, including a power project in Patel’s constituency of Gondia and a potential contract for the development of a civilian airport in Pune (which has only an air force base for the landing of civilian aircraft) which is Pawar’s own home turf.

However, none of these facts are new or previously unknown to his supporters who maintain a stoic silence as Pawar seems to sway from time to time towards the BJP. In fact, there was a time between 2014 and 2019 when the NCP was racked by two factions actually coming to blows with each other over who to support or ally with—the Congress or the BJP.

The latter faction was led by Praful Patel wishing to safeguard his own vulnerabilities, the former by state NCP president Jayant Patil, former minister Jitendra Awhad and others who were representing either marginal Congress-dominated or Muslim majority constituencies.

A formal alliance with the BJP would have been suicidal to their electoral interests but Pawar would not make his allegiances clear as he preferred occasional flirting with Modi and the BJP to keep everyone guessing.

Then the NCP began to majorly lag behind both the Congress and the Shiv Sena, even before the formation of the Maha Vikas Aghadi, and lost several local self-government bodies among its own core constituency of farmers whose disenchantment with the Modi regime was becoming increasingly obvious even before the farmers’ strike of 2019.

Simultaneously, the BJP had poached almost two-thirds of all the NCP winners in the assembly just before the 2019 assembly elections in an identical bid to destroy Pawar and the NCP as they did with Uddhav Thackeray and his Shiv Sena some two years later.

That is when Pawar decided there was no point in flirting with the BJP. The MVA could not have taken form without his manoeuvres despite a losing mandate in the 2019 polls.

It is the BJP’s own shenanigans both at the Centre and in the state that have lost them a formidable and highly networked ally like Sharad Pawar who is privately convinced that the BJP is destroying the country as well as his core constituency.

His seeming support of Adani has come close on the heels of the Union government considering a proposal to allow the large-scale import of dairy products, including milk, to India. Pawar is worried that this will sound the final death knell for the Indian farmers who are already reeling under unfavourable climatic conditions and lack of support prices.

But with 56 uninterrupted years in electoral politics—Pawar has always been a member of one or the other houses of Parliament or state legislature—Pawar has learnt the effectiveness of sweet talking his opponent into submission rather than running a futile battle against a powerful enemy.

Sympathy towards Adani softens Modi at a time when he is surrounded with adversity over his friendship with the entrepreneur and keeps at bay the enemy action against Pawar, his friends and family.

But is this seeming sympathy likely to destroy or even mar the opposition unity of which Pawar is the key architect? Knowing Pawar, one must be prepared for quick changes of position. But one thing is certain: he is convinced that the BJP is no one’s friend and the only way forward is to keep out that party. Like he did in Maharashtra, forging an alliance between two parties, the Congress and the Shiv Sena, with divergent ideologies, post poll, when all parties have had the opportunity to maximise their strengths.

A pre-poll understanding of these strengths should help to magnify the gains. The MVA experiment worked very well until the BJP used the fear of the ED to get to the Shiv Sena. So Pawar supporters are convinced he can do it again at the national level, if other parties help to minimise the BJP in their respective states.

Pawar genuinely believes there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics but his core values are those of the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar ethos of Maharashtra, which is pluralistic, egalitarian, secular and inclusive. He will not allow an easy ride to the saffron forces in the country. It is the BJP which must watch him more closely than his friends in the opposition.

(Views are personal)

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