For all his ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ kind of ways and his innumerous gaffes — in the English language — I have never believed that Sushilkumar Shinde should be taken lightly. After all, he is the singular Union home minister in recent years who has accomplished not one but two hangings (of Ajmal Kasab and Afzal Guru) under secrecy and the minimum amount of fuss and, even if he did not articulate it well — sometimes I wonder if that was deliberate bungling — he did succeed in giving a name to saffron terror, now vindicated by Swami Aseemanand’s revelations of a RSS hand in it.
Shinde is in the unique position of being a protégé of Sharad Pawar and yet fiercely loyal to the Nehru-Gandhis. Sometimes his gratitude to Pawar for pulling him out of obscurity and pushing him to the front stage might get in his way — like when he could not drive a hard bargain with Pawar during the 2004 negotiations, when he was Maharashtra’s CM, for seatsharing arrangements with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
But that never stopped Shinde from scaling greater heights — Pawar’s tantrum over a continuing alliance with the Congress soon after the 2012 presidential elections was because he did not want a secondary position in the government or Parliament to a man who had once been his humble worker. But Shinde ascended to the post of leader of the house and has managed to tread the fine line of balance between both his mentors — Pawar and Sonia Gandhi.
So I would not dismiss offhand his recent remark in Solapur that the NCP might soon merge with the Congress — this time he was speaking in Marathi and reiterated the statement to reporters later when they asked for a clarification.
This could, then, well be a trial balloon being floated by the NCP chief who might be shooting from the shoulders of his former supporter and I would look at that statement rather more seriously for, as I have reason to believe, Pawar is under siege within his own party with his very leadership under threat. He could well be seeking a way out of the impasse without having to cede his position of primacy within the NCP to anyone including his own nephew, Ajit Pawar who is simply losing patience with Pawar’s dithering over the succession issue and might not be beyond sidelining his own uncle in his own party. The only way that potential rebellion can be stemmed is if Sharad Pawar goes on to become PM but with that a remote possibility his only hope to retain control is through a merger with the Congress, I should think.
The last time that he split the Congress (in 1978) and re-merged with the mother party (in 1986), it was because he had run out of money, Now he could very well be running out of options — between unfulfilled ambitions and a crumbling party whose prospects at the Lok Sabha elections seem none too bright at the moment.
My colleague from Pune, Yogesh Joshi, tells me that the media did not take note of his most recent statement on his home turf — that Sonia Gandhi will go down in the annals of history as the only Indian who could have been PM but sacrificed the position to be just an ordinary MP. Now that is high praise indeed from a man who split the Congress precisely because he couldn’t bear the thought of someone of foreign origin but Sharad Pawar says and does nothing without careful and deliberate consideration.
Sharad Pawar may then well be laying the ground for a merger — I do not believe it will happen soon, or even before the assembly elections in October. Obviously, the Congress would have to give him something more than he has today and much will depend on the Lok Sabha results. But, as Shinde said in Solapur, the DNA of the two parties is identical. And with more than just Ajit chafing at the bit, everyone in the NCP might have a better future with the Congress. Pawar might well give it to them.