The NCP likes to describe itself as the "most" loyal ally of the Congress, a party that its chief Sharad Pawar split in 1999 in the hope of displacing Sonia Gandhi from her position of primacy and grabbing the Congress from within.
Yet today, shown its limitations by the
electorate, the NCP is compelled to keep itself firmly tied to the Congress’ apron strings.
For without the grand old party, it cannot hope to win any elections (Lok Sabha or assembly) and could also put the coalition government in Maharashtra in jeopardy, where, despite being the junior partner, it has heavyweight ministers and important departments.
This is not the first time that Mr Pawar has been accused of seeking a tie-up with the saffron parties (he has denied that he met Narendra Modi recently). Soon after the 1999 assembly elections, there were reports that he sought an alliance with the Shiv Sena and the BJP to keep the Congress, which had emerged as the single-largest party, out of power.
But his own party MLAs forced his hand in the matter and he reluctantly gave in to their demand to stay the secular course and join hands with the Congress. Many NCP leaders representing marginal seats forced Mr Pawar’s hand again in 2004 to forge a formal alliance with the Congress but since then he has realised that he wins only if he is with the Congress.
Now, his battle with the mother ship is not so much about loyalty or an alliance but about survival and crucial to that is seat-sharing between the two parties in the coming general elections. Senior Congress leaders believe the NCP is on a weak wicket with sliding percentages and want to pare down the NCP share from 22 out of 48 seats to just about 16-18.
That is unacceptable to Mr Pawar because he feels that if he has enough MPs, he would have a good chance to throw his hat into the ring to head a third front government in case of a hung Parliament.
The Congress is aware that Mr Pawar will stay loyal only until the results of the Lok Sabha elections are out and wishes to make it difficult for him to break ranks.
So the parties have locked horns, with Mr Pawar in no position to blackmail the Congress into submission given not just his weak electoral prospects but also his party’s involvement in multiple scams in the state.
Now with the Shiv Sena making it clear there is no room in their alliance for the NCP, Mr Pawar must either swim or sink with the Congress. He is upping the ante but, for once, he may even have to blink first. And, Mr Pawar does not cherish that prospect.
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