Can Sharad Pawar do without the Congress?
The explanation for the contretemps with the Congress, the major ally in the Centre, and a presumed equal in Maharashtra would necessarily have to take that question seriously.
Sharad Pawar has had a long innings with the Congress party, has moved in and out at least thrice and now sups with it – at least till he stopped attending the Cabinet in Delhi - despite serious issues like his penchant for seeking power at all costs and ideological issues like Mrs Sonia Gandhi‘s Italian origins.
The first worked for him several times; if being sworn-in as chief minister of Maharashtra frequently is a benchmark. His appetite for power is undiminished which is why he is planning to pay more attention to his party which has not been able to best the Congress to the top job in his home state.
So much so, that in an interview to IBN-Lokmat’s Nikhil Wagale, he had said he won’t be found in any efforts to form a third front. Such a third front would necessarily have to be anti-Congress. In Maharashtra, such a formulation would not work for the other parties like the Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress, Janata Dal (U), CPI, CPM etc have very nominal, if at all, and presence to make a difference.
Yes, tagging their names to a manifesto, holding press conferences with the leaders of these tiny parties do help brand him as a leader who can work with and deal with parties. They find a few scattered votes. That Pawar does manage, depending on which directions the straws are moving in the political wind while true, Congress, Shiv Sena and the BJP are his certain local rivals.
So what does he do? Raises important policy issues, gives the impression that he is almost out of the UPA-II, and calls the person who was his choice for PM, Manmohan Singh, a disappointment. Policy paralysis was the metaphor used.
There is no doubt that he is a towering Maharashtra leader, experienced and tactful in his dealing with people, political or non-political, but that does not get extrapolated in the same dimensions on the national scale. The image in Maharashtra, often overblown by the media has helped the country notice the man but has not got him the kind of spread he wanted. The ‘National’ in his party’s name is the giveaway to the ambition.
When things did not work out the way he wanted, or at least hoped, when he launched his party in 1999, making the Sonia Gandhi his target, it showed he had a base but not enough to entirely conquer Maharashtra. He had much less to show elsewhere across the country, though the votes garnered in other states gave NCP the status of a national party, not regional. Which means, despite being a foe, he has to sleep with the enemy.
Would he walk out of the alliance with Congress in Maharashtra and hope to continue with the tie-up in Delhi? Not likely because the Congress, despite its constant head-ons with Mamata‘s TMC, has the support of the Samajwadi Party, and would not need his handful of MPs. Would Congress then snap ties with him in Maharashtra? Unlikely, because it needs NCP as much as NCP does to remain in power.
The relationship in Delhi with UPA-II has been one of a supplicatory party which he seems to want to change, at least, in terms of image. In Maharashtra, despite having superior numbers or almost equal to Congress, he has had to concede the top job to that party. A faux pas by Chhagan Bhujbal who breathlessly beseeched Congress to do something to keep BJP-Sena out helped NCP lose its claims to chief steward.
In each election thereafter, the NCP has been content with ‘better’ portfolios – you can read any meaning into it – but get the number two slot of a deputy chief minister. So access to instruments of power is as important as is a formally assigned status, graded by numbers. The UPA-II Cabinet’s number two spot is not of consequence, Pawar now admits.
No doubt national issues which are mishandled disturb his sleep and trouble him enormously. No doubt policy paralysis at the centre causes much concern to him as much as the salvos fired at him, his party and his party’s second rung leaders. The best way to tell a troublesome ally-cum-political foe is by stirring things up. Once that is done, the chaos ensues, and he gets his edge.
That seems to be the case now. Unless, as is the wont of the man, he has perhaps kept the real reason for his present state of being all riled up hidden up his sleeve. He has a penchant for throwing surprises, for instance the precise timing of the present letter to the prime minister, not attending cabinet meetings, not attending office is inexplicable; they do not affect the outcome of the presidential elections.
So this is the caveat: his objectives may be something else. The story may yet unravel. The intent may be simple gains of some more respect. But the reality is, he cannot do without the Congress.