For more than a year now Congress leaders of various factions have nonetheless been united and are sure about just one thing—they need Sharad Pawar and his Nationalist Congress Party to win the next elections.
“We merely have to sort out the seat sharing arrangement. But we are very clear, we will ally with the NCP, “ state party chief Ashok Chavan had said.
It was a view endorsed by rival and his successor as chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, whose obstinacy over not giving the NCP any quarter while in government was the main reason for the NCP breaking up with the Congress in October 2014.
Prithviraj believes if Pawar’s nephew and his deputy in government, Ajit Pawar, had any issue with his style of functioning, they could have complained to his party president (Sonia Gandhi at the time) and sorted out the issue. “I was hurt by the public spectacle the NCP made about the alliance. But I am still clear in my mind, We must ally with the NCP despite all our issues."
The Congress has learnt faster than the NCP about the futility of jeopardising their chances over ego clashes and personal interests. The NCP has taken much longer. Again, for more than a year now, there have been bitter clashes and ego tussles within the NCP over swinging right or keeping left. The faction which has wanted to ally with the BJP for a long time now first seemed to have persuaded Pawar to go right. In fact, they attempted to barge their way, uninvited, into government when the BJP came up more than 20 seats short of a majority in Maharashtra in October 2014. They were held at bay by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis who had campaigned bitterly against the NCP's corrupt ways and did not want to be seen endorsing that corruption.
For some time, Sharad Pawar endorsed Narendra Modi's demonetisation and Modi returned the favour by flying to Baramati, Pawar’s home turf, and declaring him as his guru in politics, the right-wing faction within the NCP seemed to be winning. But the series of local self-government elections that followed the demonetisation proved the folly of that endorsement. The NCP, seen as a party with farmers' interests at heart, did badly in the rural areas while the Congress fared much better. Soon Pawar was compelled by left-wingers to reverse his endorsement of the demonetisation that had affected farmers and co-operatives—the party's backbone—badly. But the tussle continued within the party factions.
However, following the Rafale expose, and Pawar’s clean chit to Modi on the same, the reaction among party supporters and ideologues, with very little time before elections to effect a damage control, was swifter. Within two days, Pawar withdrew the clean chit and soon after even opined that he did not think Modi was returning as prime minister.
That is because, as political observer Vinayak Prabhu points out, there is a stillness within the NCP, even in the sugar belt, the party's supposed bastion. “All those quitting the BJP are gravitating towards the Congress or even the Shiv Sena. Nobody wants to join the NCP because of the party’s flip-flops. At least with the Congress they know what they are getting – and they know for sure there would never be an alliance with BJP.”
The recognition of this loss of credibility has now brought Pawar round to publicly declare there will be an alliance with the Congress at the coming elections. Perhaps, as Prabhu points out, Pawar too recognises the fact that the NCP will do worse than the Congress this time round. His party too needs to keep their secular vote bank together for the right-wing space has already been fully occupied by the BJP and now the Shiv Sena which is returning to the Ram Mandir issue.
The NCP‘s dalliance with Modi and the BJP was determined by the business interests of some of its leaders and the need to keep on the right side of the ruling party, given the corruption charges faced by many of its ministers, including Pawar's nephew, while in government. But now with the terms of both governments, at the Centre and in the state, coming to an end and it becoming obvious that Modi and the BJP are faltering,
Pawar is, as usual, looking out for his interests. For the first time in five decades of his public life he has been unable to influence governments as he did in the past. For example, he continued to determine the fate of the sugar co-operative sector during the Deva Gowda and even Vajpayee regimes and set the agenda even for Bal Thackeray during the Shiv Sena-BJP regime in Maharashtra in the years 1995-99. After the Congress-NCP took over, Pawar’s writ ran large in the Maharashtra government. The only chief minister who could successfully contain the Pawars was Prithviraj Chavan. Hence he was hated by the NCP and became the cause for their break-up.
Now, the two parties are inching towards an alliance. A Congress leader said they have reached a consensus on 38 of the total 48 seats in Maharashtra and talks are on for the remaining ones. Earlier this week, NCP chief Sharad Pawar had reportedly said in Aurangabad that a consensus has been arrived at for 40 seats.