Pawar's no Mamata-di! He's giving Cong batting practice

“A woman and an elephant never forget an injury,” wrote Hector Hugh Munro, better known by his pen name Saki. Wonder whether, Sharad Pawar, the sharp man that he is, has ever read Saki, who's always makes for a delightful read.

The Maratha strongman reportedly resigned from the Union Cabinet last week. Media reports suggest that he was miffed by the fact that after Pranab Mukherjee decided to retire and move to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he was not made the number two in the Union Cabinet. It seems that Defence Minister AK Antony has been allocated to sit to the right of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, where Mukherjee used to sit, making him number two in the government. And that’s a seat that Pawar had wanted.

Is Pawar raising a fuss just to safeguard his own interests? Reuters

The Congress Party has been trying to mollify Pawar and his Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) since he quit a few days back. "In a parliamentary democracy, all are equal in Cabinet. The Prime Minister is first among equals and there is no number two or number three,” Congress General Secretary Digvijaya Singh told the Deccan Chronicle.

That apart, it would be rather stupid of Pawar to assume that the Congress would offer the number two position in the cabinet to him, assuming there was a thing like that. Pawar was one of the first to raise a banner of revolt against Sonia Gandhi by bringing her foreign origins to the forefront, after she had taken over as the President of the Congress Party in the late 1990s.

Even before that Sonia and Pawar never shared a great relationship. As Rashid Kidwai writes in Sonia-A Biography, “When she (Sonia Gandhi) took over as the Congress chief, there was a certain unease between her and Sharad Pawar. Though Pawar concurred with the party’s decision to request Sonia to save the Congress, he later candidly admitted that he was never comfortable with her. Their conversations never lasted long and even that short duration was punctuated by long pauses.”

On 14 March 1998, the Congress Working Committee unceremoniously shunted out Sitaram Kesri, an elected President, and requested Sonia Gandhi to take over as the President of the Congress.

Kidwai, in his book, suggests that after Sonia took over as President of the Congress, Pawar got an informal poll survey done. The results of the survey concluded that if he raised the banner of revolt against Sonia on the issue of her foreign origin, he would be the second Lokmanya Tilak. “The actual findings of the survey were never made public,” writes Kidwai.

Things got nasty a little over a year and two months later on 19 May 1999, when Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar raised a revolt against Sonia Gandhi on the issue of her foreign origin. Sonia resigned in a huff. But she took her resignation back after the trio was kicked out of the Congress party.

Therefore things went from bad to worse between Pawar and Sonia. “After revolting against her on the ground of her foreign origins, Pawar said that Sonia would never openly speak to him, but a CWC member who had tried hard to bring about a rapprochement between Pawar and Sonia said the same thing about him: ‘We encouraged him to have an open, heart-to-heart discussion with the Congress President, but he would just not open up,’” writes Kidwai.

So all this suggests that Pawar and Sonia share a very uneasy relationship and probably bear each other because of the compulsions of coalition politics. Also Sharad Pawar effectively ensured that Sonia Gandhi never became the Prime Minister of the country. Given that, it is highly unlikely that Sonia would appoint Pawar number two in any union cabinet which she effectively controls.

Pawar, of course, understands this more than anyone else given the shrewd man that he is. So why is there all the drama of quitting in a huff? The major reason seems to be the fact that Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithiviraj Chauhan is seen to be hurting the interests of the NCP. He has announced a white paper on the irrigation department which has been headed by Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar for 10 years now.

The other major issue has been with cooperative banks. The Reserve Bank of India had dissolved the board of directors of the Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank which was controlled by Ajit Pawar in May last year. Pawar junior had come down heavily on the manner in which Chavan had implemented the RBI order in haste.

A few months back in March, RBI dissolved the NCP-controlled Sangli District Central Cooperative Bank for violation of the Banking Regulation Act. This move came a week after the NCP leader Dinkar Patel was elected as the Chairman of the Bank.

Chavan has also distanced himself from the refurbished Maharashtra Sadan in New Delhi. Allegations are now being made that relatives and family members of Public Works Development (PWD) Minister Chhagan Bhujbal, a senior NCP leader, benefitted considerably from contracts that were awarded out at inflated costs.

The NCP is also unhappy with the fact that Chavan is not giving Pawar enough respect. “"In the past, CMs would make it a point to call on him and give him the respect due to a tall leader," Times of India reported sources as saying.

The other theory going around is that Pawar is worried about the increasing influence of his nephew Ajit among the party legislators. Hence this move of resigning from the Union cabinet is also being seen as a pressure tactic to get a ministerial birth for his daughter Supriya Sule, who is a member of the Lok Sabha from Baramati constituency. As The Times of India of 22 July noted, “Congress sources feel Pawar is shrewdly leveraging his unhappiness with the CM to pressure the Centre on demands ranging from a say in governorships, appointments to various boards, and a ministerial perch for daughter Supriya while invoking the coalition mantra. He is also seen to be pitching for a say in Rajya Sabha nominations.”

The game is all about drawing some concessions out of the Congress party. At the end of the day we must remember that Pawar is no Mamata Banerjee. The influence of the NCP is limited to parts of western Maharashtra (primarily in districts around Pune). Pawar and NCP cannot win an election in Maharashtra on their own, unlike Mamata, who can and did in West Bengal. They need the Congress party as an alliance partner as much as the Congress needs them.

The elections in Maharasthra are due in 2014. NCP is a party of business barons who have huge stakes in cooperative banks, sugar cooperatives and education institutes. Given this, it is important for them to remain in government. And they won’t remain in government unless they have a seat sharing agreement with the Congress party.

So what Pawar is doing right now is throwing some tough deliveries at the Congress party to give them some batting practice and hoping that he is able to draw out some goodies from them in the process. In the meanwhile, we will see the serious rhetoric from the NCP continuing. The one that caught my eye was of Jitendra Awhad, an NCP leader, recently telling CNN-IBN that Sharad Pawar was the best man to be the Prime Minister.

Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com