Even by the pace of political deal-making and abject surrender that we’ve come to expect of a feckless Congress, this morning’s meeting between Congress president Sonia Gandhi and NCP leader Sharad Pawar was extraordinarily swift in ironing out a political quick-fix.
And barely hours after Pawar and his NCP colleague in the Cabinet, Praful Patel, sent in their resignation from the Cabinet, ostensibly to protest the numerous ‘slights’ by the Congress, they are indicating that the storm had already blown over.
Sonia Gandhi evidently assured him at the meeting that the Congress considered him an “important ally” and he should not escalate the issues that he had raised. In itself, this represents a mere symbolic acknowledgement of the importance of being Pawar; it’s hard to believe this alone was enough to placate a man who took the extreme step of tendering his resignation.
Pawar’s pique at having been overlooked for the No 2 spot in the Cabinet, consequent on the imminent elevation of Pranab Mukherjee to the Presidency, is being cited as the most proximate reason cited for the sudden eruption of strains in the NCP’s ties with the Congress.
But if there’s one thing we know of the wily Pawar, it is that he isn’t likely to play for symbolic stakes. Pawar is fighting for far more significant things, both at the Centre and in his home State of Maharashtra. At best, the denial of the No 2 slot may have been the proximate cause that fed his growing sense of resentment at being taken for granted within the UPA.
NCP leader DP Tripathi confirmed that Pawar wasn’s excessively obsessed about the “pecking order” in the Cabinet or his place in the hierarchy of power in the UPA dispensation. There were other, far more significant, issues underlying Pawar and Pate’s decision not to attend the Cabinet meeting on Thursday, he added.
In effect, Pawar was looking to kill three birds with one stone – all of which go to the core of redefining the NCP’s place in the universe vis-a-vis the Congress by leveraging the perception that the Congress has been politically enfeebled in the three-plus years since it was re-elected to power in 2009.
First, Pawar wants to renegotiate the NCP-Congress power balance in Maharashtra to his advantage, with the intention of projecting his nephew Ajit Pawar as Chief Minister after the Assembly elections next year. Most such political jockeying moves typically begin a year in advance, and Pawar has made the first of what will be many astute political moves.
Pawar also would like the NCP to be given a greater proportion of the Lok Sabha seats in the general elections, whenever they are held, in the hope of extracting yet more pounds of flesh from the Congress and enhancing its leverage. Pawar senses, rightly, that the Congress is enfeebled, and cannot afford to antagonise its allies, and must pay whatever blood price is expected of it.
Second, Pawar wants his daughter and MP Supriya Sule inducted in the Union Ministry when it is reshuffled, as it is expected to be, in early August. Pawar has always angled for Sule to be accommodate in the Ministry, and has been resentful of the fact that while Sule’s case has been put on hold for long, Agatha Sangma, the daughter of PA Sangma (who resigned from the NCP to contest the election) continues in the Ministry.
Pawar had until yesterday not secured any commitment on Sule’s appointment, and he chose to strike on the same day that the Congress indicated that it was about to give a promotion to its own dynastic leader Rahul Gandhi.
Third, Pawar has seen some of his recommendations for appointments to some key posts – such as the head of Nabard – shot down, adding insult to injury.
In short, Pawar had increasingly begun to feel that he was being taken for granted within the UPA. As happened earlier this year, when the Directorate-General of Foreign Trade imposed a ban on cotton export without taking him into confidence, he reckons he is being sidelined even on issues that relate to his ministry.
Now that the Congress has moved to placate him at the political level with words of comfort, it’s only a matter of time before he extracts his pound of flesh on the substantive issues that he seeks. The capitulation of the Congress to one more of its ‘allies’ is complete.