Years ago, one of Sharad Pawar's closest supporters told me wryly, "Sharad Pawar is Sharad Pawar only because Yashwantrao Chavan made him Sharad Pawar."
He had meant that there was no second-rung leadership in Maharashtra and that it had been possible for Pawar to become what he was only because YB Chavan had nurtured and groomed him for years. By contrast, Pawar was loathed to declare a protégé and insisted that 'he or she will grow from the grassroots'. I suppose he meant his nephew or daughter but this supporter was lamenting the fact that Pawar would not trust even his own kin to formally declare a political heir.
Pawar's lack of faith in a second-rung leadership perhaps comes from his own history of betrayal, of Chavan and later of Vasantdada Patil, another doyen of Maharashtra politics against whom Pawar conducted a coup d'état to take over as CM in 1978. And his reluctance to declare a political heir probably arose from the Thackeray example - the moment Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray chose his son Uddhav over his nephew Raj, his party was doomed and split up.
But while Pawar might have kept his own party from splitting, it has resulted in a lack of leadership in not just the NCP but the whole of Maharashtra. For, after Bal Thackeray, even the Shiv Sena has not been able to throw up a leadership equal to the patriarch. There is none in the Pawar family who might don Pawar's mantle with ease. And if there is other talent in the NCP, Pawar does not want to give them a free rein.
The Congress had hope in Vilasrao Deshmukh who might have been able to build a second rung, but that hope was snuffed out with his death. Ashok Chavan is bogged down in court cases and the only Congress leader keeping the party flag flying seems to be Sanjay Nirupam. But while he is leading the city Congress well, Maharashtra is beyond his pale.
Which brings us to the ruling BJP. Sharad Pawar had been only 38 when he first became CM - and a good one at that. So I had thought that Devendra Fadnavis, at 44, would be equal to the job. But what I forgot then was that Pawar had been groomed into the position by older stalwarts and had been through several administrative positions in the government, including as minister of state for home, before he became CM.
Fadnavis, in that respect, was a greenhorn and while that should have brought a fresh new perspective to his governance, I am saddened at his flip-flops and what seems like major mismanagement by bureaucrats surrounding him. The fiasco over former police commissioner Rakesh Maria's transfer, which took on the proportions of a farce, is a case in point. The failure to address the drought in Marathwada is another. Talatis and patwaris in the region have stopped visiting the villages as they are being pelted with stones by the people who are days from dying of thirst. They are also afraid that cattle deaths could cause epidemics and lead to a catastrophe.
That brings us back to Pawar who continues to be the only leader of consequence in the state. Villagers in Maharashtra associate Pawar with good rains. In the past I've heard them say that when he travels in a 'laal batti' (an official car with a red beacon), Lord Indra smiles down upon them. Notwithstanding the fact that his party, while in power, had created an artificial drought in Marathwada by diverting water from its dams to their own sugarcane fields, Pawar is the only leader who seems to understand the crisis. Despite his confusing double-speak on the BJP (he beams like a, well, beacon at a meeting with Narendra Modi at the very moment NCP workers are being arrested over their drought agitation), villagers are still looking up to him desperately.
Sharad Pawar, however, is out of power. But where, for god's sake, are the other laal battis!