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Sharad Pawar may still hope to be PM

In this high-octane battle between the Congress and the BJP, one tends to forget 'The Great Survivor' - Sharad Pawar - who has been unusually quiet (and exceptionally sweet) to the Congress during the poll process.

columns Updated: May 13, 2014 20:38 IST
Sujata Anandan

If you believe the exit poll results, which came out on Monday then the game is over for all but the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. But if the record of the last 10 years is anything to go by then surprises are in store. Under these circumstances, when someone asked me to pick a candidate who could make an ideal PM, I shocked myself when I discovered that not one name came to my mind as someone I could trust completely.

While I am still convinced that four women - the BSP's Mayawati, Trinamool Congress' Mamata Banerjee, AIADMK's J Jayalalithaa and Congress' Sonia Gandhi - will decide the outcome of this election, is there someone better than either Modi or Rahul Gandhi to lead the nation? I cannot quite think of one.

But in this high-octane battle between the Congress and the BJP, one tends to forget 'The Great Survivor' - Sharad Pawar - who has been unusually quiet (and exceptionally sweet) to the Congress during the poll process. But he has also been strategically giving some pro-Modi comments. I was never convinced that he was preparing to deal with Modi. I tend to agree with Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan that Pawar's DNA is socialist and there is no way he could join forces with communal parties (unless he can dominate them but with Modi around, he clearly cannot).

But now after talking to a gamut of people within the NCP and the Congress, I get the sense that Pawar has been deliberately throwing people off the scent and keeping his own ambitions to become PM - his last bid for the job - under wraps. For the last two weeks, he has been intensely networking with non-BJP parties, a process he started more than two years ago knowing well that the UPA would be in trouble and he alone has the chance of cobbling together a workable coalition.

Pawar is the most networked politician in the country and, in fact, in this context, his supporters describe him as the ubiquitous potato. The inference is clear: Pawar alone could find acceptability among all the regional chieftains and, if push came to shove, the Congress might even consider supporting this long time ally for prime ministership.

I would trust Pawar for his superb administrative skills (no one is admired more by bureaucrats) and his control of the bureaucracy - without disrespecting them - is masterly. His socialist and women-friendly policies were unique: His was the only government in the world that gave women the right to shut down liquor stores - even if it meant loss of revenue for the state - if they felt those were destroying their domestic harmony.

His respect for democracy and freedom of expression are worth remarking on - unlike some, he was not vindictive even when he got slapped by a stranger in New Delhi about three years ago. How many rabidly anti-Pawar journalists can one find who were threatened with broken limbs or dire consequences the way some other political leaders have done?

But I cannot trust Pawar when it comes to real estate and crony capitalism. Pawar sees a real estate opportunity in almost every ministry he handles: He began by privatising land in the Pune cantonment when he was defence minister until the Army woke up to the threat and complained to then PM, PV Narasimha Rao. He wanted to get rid of food godowns soon after he took over as agriculture minister and in the two terms his various calculated statements over crops and their prices were seen as signals to his trader friends; he is also alleged to have interests in the movement of commodities in the country.

Can we then, in case there is no decisive mandate and the third front parties make up the bigger numbers, place the country in Pawar's hands? Will we be able to sleep well at night? I have no answer to this question.