Sharad Pawar's clout and craftiness ensure his continuing relevance, make him top candidate for prime position

The NCP leader is running the last lap of his political career. And we all know how important the last lap is in the 4x400m relay race

Arup Ghosh January 19, 2022 07:55:20 IST
Sharad Pawar's clout and craftiness ensure his continuing relevance, make him top candidate for prime position

File image of NCP chief Sharad Pawar. PTI

Sharad Pawar, aka Saheb, may be 81 years old but his clout and craftiness have ensured his continuing relevance. The man, who nearly became the country’s prime minister, is one of the country’s best political negotiators adept at leading from behind. Currently, he is mentoring the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra.

But he has kept both eyes open for what may happen in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. In many ways, he reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, The Man Who Would Be King.

The title of Kipling’s novel became a metaphor of man’s vaulting ambition. The hunger and push to succeed, to punch above one’s weight and willingness to take audacious risks can work both ways. While drive is necessary to move ahead, there are no guarantees where a man may end up. Hence, the man who would be king.

As India faces an interesting round of Assembly elections in February 2022, all eyes are also on the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. There is deep interest in what the Opposition may end up doing. It needs a united front. Cross-voting should be avoided. Try and turn it into a one-on-one fight for best gains. And above all, India would want to know who best can lead that Opposition alliance.

In case of an upset, that leader has every chance of usurping the throne.

In the fray are many with Mamata Banerjee favouring the odds, as of now. Yet, in the end it all boils down to all-round approval. Who would be most acceptable? Who has the experience? Who could be a consensus candidate? These are important questions. And this is where the Maratha strongman scores heavily.

Maharashtra watchers say the Aghadi government would not have been formed if not for Pawar’s (president of the Nationalist Congress Party) active lobbying and backend manoeuvres. He is a past master at that. Narendra Modi had said in the past that Pawar was like a “Guru’ to him. Saheb also has direct access to Sonia Gandhi irrespective of how badly he was once treated by the Congress. He has this mercurial ability to keep everyone guessing as to what he may do next.

To begin with, he has deep connect both in the BJP as well as the Congress. He tangos very well with many regional leaders at a personal level. Some approach him for advice. He has set his sights on two milestones. One, the 2024 elections; and two, the presidential election which comes up in July 2022. If Saheb becomes the next president, his role would obviously change. But if he doesn’t, then the 2024 target would be very interesting to analyse.

Looking at Maharashtra, some observers say Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena got a window of opportunity with the COVID-19 pandemic. Strange as it may sound, it gave Uddhav a window of six months to settle down. By then he had stitched up the bureaucracy. His son Aditya also got into the groove. The overall message went across that the Aghadi government was there to stay.

In this equation the local Congress did not have much of a choice. They have no regional leaders who carry the clout of the late Vilasrao Deshmukh. Ajit Pawar, nephew of Sharad Pawar and a key leader in the NCP, played his own hand by trying to align with the BJP. He was later marginalised by Saheb. Now, he worries about setting the stage for his daughter Supriya Sule.

I have interacted with Supriya a few times during her poll campaigns in Baramati and elsewhere. She is sharp but very dependent on her father. Ajit Pawar would always be a tougher nut to crack. Saheb knows that.

Now with under three years left for the next state election in Maharashtra, which would coincide with the 2024 elections, no one wants to upset the apple cart. The alliance partners want to remain in the saddle as it suits them. The BMC (corporation) elections would be the next challenge as its tenure ends in February 2022.

The issue of OBC reservation goes on in the background. Pawar is trying to ensure that they keep their hold on the BMC, which is not only a cash cow but also signifies clout. The only thing he worries about is if BJP does well in the Uttar Pradesh elections, then for sure the saffron party would have a go there during the BMC polls.

Looking ahead, Pawar knows the Congress would never back Mamata Banerjee in a common alliance. Pawar’s core political identity is about compromise and moderation. And he can handle partisan rancour better than most. Making him a top candidate for the top position.

Provided his health stays stable.

In a latest move, the NCP is in talks with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and the Congress to fight the Goa Assembly elections together. Sharad Pawar said: “Trinamool, NCP and Congress are holding discussions. We have given our choice of seats to them. A decision will be made soon.”

“We discussed coming together in Goa and the discussions are still on. No decision has been made yet. Goa needs a change and the BJP government needs to be changed,” Pawar said.

He wants the NCP to contest in UP, Goa and Manipur to retain its national party status. He says that he would campaign in Uttar Pradesh. And feels Keshav Prasad Maurya’s exit from the BJP to join the Samajwadi Party was a critical blow. He has information that more MLAs would exit the BJP by the time the ticket distribution is done.

Speaking recently at the launch of Ashtavdhani, a coffee table book published by Loksatta to mark his 81st birthday, Pawar supported Modi’s decision to contest the Lok Sabha poll from Varanasi. He also praised the prime minister for putting in a lot of hard work. “He believes in taking the task he has taken up to its logical conclusion. He pays a lot of attention to the administration. However, if the general public’s problems are not resolved, the impact will not be seen… I find him lagging here,” he said.

At the same event, Pawar also recalled how he and former prime minister Manmohan Singh were against “politics of vendetta”, which some Cabinet colleagues in the then UPA government were in favour of, against Modi when he was Gujarat chief minister.

Modi, at the time, “had been severely critical of the Manmohan Singh government”, Pawar said, “This increased the distance between Delhi and Gujarat. There was no one else other than me who was ready to interact with Modi.” This thread explains his closeness to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

According to Pawar, he has never left the ideology of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Yashwantrao Chavan. He is running the last lap of his political career. And we all know how important the last lap is in the 4x400m relay race. The best runner anchors this leg. The big question is: Can Saheb pull out all the stops?

The author is CEO, nnis. Views expressed are personal.

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