Much as I had admired Sharad Pawar for long, it was on his 60th birthday bash that I first started to feel sorry for the Maratha warlord. The previous eve he had thrown a grand party for the who’s who of India — they were in full attendance and Pawar looked both smug and happy at the turnout. The next day, however, was a revelation. Like his 75th birthday celebrations, organised in two parts this year (one in Delhi, the other in Bombay), Pawar then held a rally the next day at the Mahalaxmi Race Course grounds for his supporters. His address to the villagers was revealing.
I sat up, my jaw dropping, forgetting to take notes, as I understood the full import of the statement he was making to his supporters — “I am just 60 years old today. In India no one becomes prime minister before they are in their mid-70s. Look at Narasimha Rao and now at Atal Bihari Vajpayee. So I have a good 10 to 15 years to go before I get there.”
Minutes later Vajpayee arrived on stage to bless him and his supporters thought Pawar could soon be the next PM.
There had never been a more bald expression of the desire to be prime minister on anybody’s part until then (Narendra Modi had not even arrived on the Indian political firmament) and I wondered why Pawar needed to etch that into the minds of his supporters with such a sharp knife. He had just split the Congress barely a year ago, but even then he had been facing the same problem as he is now: The restlessness of his supporters who had joined him willy-nilly, some sugar barons compelled by their economic circumstances to do so, others bullied by Pawar into making that choice in his favour.
The promise of a prime ministership in the near future was the glue that would keep this flock together and, I believe, with identical circumstances prevailing 15 years later (none of the NCP stalwarts believe he has any better future with Pawar), he is attempting the same again but with rather more finesse than when he had turned 60.
This time he has made his ambitions clear through his close supporter, industrialist Rahul Bajaj (a former NCP Rajya Sabha MP), who said at the public gathering for Pawar’s 75th birthday in Bombay, “Sharad Pawar is the best prime minister India never had. I wish to now see him become the President of India.”
Pawar knows he has missed the bus to the PMO but is now running to catch the one to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. That’s the reason for his recent cosying up to Narendra Modi but being the astute politician that he is, I do not think even Pawar believes he will make it to the President’s office. He has spent a life-time bitterly fighting the RSS ideology and Nagpur will never endorse his candidature. Moreover, knowing Modi for the kind of person he is — very sensitive about past insults and conscious about exactly why people now kowtow to him — he is not likely to forget that it was not Rahul Gandhi but Pawar who had come up with the most cutting statement about Modi during the 2014 polls that made him the butt of ridicule at least around Maharashtra. In rally after rally, Pawar had described Modi as “an over-eager bridegroom anxious to consummate his marriage even before the ceremonies are over”.
This glue then might not stick on as much as the one that came out of the PMO did. But it might still be good for the next year-and-a-half. That is a long time in politics. Who knows what ace he might pull out of his sleeve then? Pawar was always the proverbial cat with nine lives, as even all his detractors should know.