Sudhakarrao Naik, when he was the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, confided once that when dealing with Sharad Pawar, it was a political game where both chess and poker (teen patta) were involved. You play only one of the two genres; Pawar almost always came up trumps.
These metaphors from a politician who worked closely with Pawar till he secured his chief ministership — he did not even believe it, he pinched himself hard when told the CM’s office was his – clearly explains the negotiating skills the Nationalist Congress Party chief has. It is hard to see him blink first.
It is hard to see through him, despite the press conferences and leaks, where the latter rages like a wildfire. Since everyone knows Pawar can and does spring surprises, everyone is ready to be hit by one. Everyone includes the media who try to second guess Pawar. The weird, absurd and sometimes even correct interpretations galore and it is in this confusion that the man makes his move, quietly.
The saying goes, with respect to Sharad Pawar, that when it comes to policies, government to businessmen deals to promote industrialisation et al, they are the ‘you-get-what-you-see types’. A person going to him for a concession or support to put up, say a major industrial unit, works when he signals his approval.
But if it comes to politics, it is another ballgame, entirely. He may use politicians, mediamen, businessmen, his admirers with clout which overarch political ideologies. It is said he would not put his neck out on a poll outcome without discussing it first with one businessman in Indore.
Sometimes, that beats a psephologist.
It is this backdrop that one needs to keep in mind when looking at the Nationalist Congress Party and Congress contretemps being reported in the media, breathlessly. Is the spat really to get the Number 2 slot? Or is it to get Prithviraj Chavan out of Mantralaya? Or is it both? Or is it to ask the Congress to handover the chief minister’s seat to an NCP nominee? The obvious is seldom his requirement.
Well-placed NCP leaks, the pronouncements by the canny, articulate, patient and smiling Praful Patel doles out now almost on daily basis, the calibrated refusal to part with any information apart from general principles and trivia from DP Tripathi, together confound than clear the air. It is an adept sowing of confusion. What is happening in the backrooms, perhaps not involving only politicians, is the true action.
One never knows. But whatever evolves, going by the past events, is going to be portrayed as what was precisely the objective he set out to secure. That way, whatever the outcome, he would not be seen as a failed campaigner. Notice he has not said much himself. Notice that what started out with NCP leaks about the numero duo demand to now the Congress-NCP strain, long brewing, and right from 1999.
Let us hark back to 1999.
It explains how things are worked.
Congress and NCP did not have enough number to form a government in Maharashtra. Nor did they have sufficient by adding up their respective newly acquired strengths in the state assembly. They had to poach for others, secure help from smaller parties. That was a typical Pawar strength: getting people to support him.
Soon after the poll results were out, showing everyone in the wilderness, Rajdeep Sardesai, then with NDTV, had staked his camera unit in Mantralaya. Sushilkumar Shinde, then the first available biggie from Congress, was making non-committal noises despite Sardesai’s probing, leading questions.
Then walked in Chhagan Bhujbal, state chief of NCP on to the same patch of lawn from his home across the Madam Cama Road and was wondering what to say. He consulted some hanging around, especially a few media persons. The word was, be as evasive as Shinde. But he could not hold back.
Facing the camera, standing next to Shinde, Bhujbal pleaded with Shinde which, inter alia, went like this: the Congress was a bigger party, it had better do something, or the Shiv Sena – Bharatiya Janata Party which ruled Maharashtra since 1995 “will come back to power”. That was a public display of helplessness, so contrary to Pawar’s ways; the poker-paradigm being the mot juste description.
Thereafter, discussions to form a post-poll alliance that could stymie the BJP-Sena and deliver an NCP-Congress government commenced. They worked through the day and the night but a settlement would not arrive to either’s satisfaction. At one point, at Pawar’s behest, Bujbal left the discussions midway, announcing to newsmen that he was going out to find out why Sudhakarrao Naik was talking to the Sena.
Bhujbal did not go seeking out Naik who was smoking his pipe Worli Seaface apartment. He was sent. By you know who. Bhujbal had lost almost all his discretion by then in deal-making but he was played to the gallery.
That stirred up fears. That also stigmatised Naik as a pro-Sena man, a conferred image that he carried to his grave, and appropriately enough, Pawar met the Thackeray cousins, Manohar Joshi for dinner at his place and as it was later known, no word about politics was ever uttered even once. Perhaps that had misled the Sena at the start of a new possibility but that was just a stage-managed mirage.
The atmosphere between Congress-NCP had turned noxious. The Congress’s Vilasrao Deshmukh, who was only hoping to be a leader of opposition in the Assembly, got a little restless though publicly showed his disinterest. The last round saw NCP emerging with posts of Speaker, Deputy Chief Minister, all major portfolios which lend meat and muscle to government and transfers its might to the party.
After signing the deal, which saw Deshmukh as Chief Minister and Bhujbal as Deputy Chief Minister, Sharad Pawar told me, “If only Bhujbal had kept his counsel when facing the TV camera, we would have walked away with the CM’s post. Political negotiations require secrecy, patience, and more patience. A winner is one who can ensure that.”
“The media,” he had added then, “was more impatient that Bhujbal”. This, if one watches closely enough, gives me the sense of déjà vu. But more than then, with 24×7 breathless breaking news, is helping the politicians’ cause. Watch each of the channels, each has a different take. Only the backroom boys, whom we would never know, are working out a deal.
But yes, what deal?
Ask Sharad Pawar. He would only smile.