One could not agree with Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar more when he reminds Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan that he owes his high office to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Pawar was riled by Chavan when he recently questioned the NCP’s raison d’être and wondered what purpose the party had served since it came into being. While it is true that Chavan owes his high office to the NCP, that is truer of one of Chavan’s predecessors in that job — Vilasrao Deshmukh — who became chief minister in 1999 essentially because of the NCP. In fact, even Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ashok Chavan would never have been chief ministers had it not been for the formation of the NCP.
There is a galaxy of fire brand leaders in the Maharashtra Congress, who called themselves ‘loyalists’ — those who stuck by Indira Gandhi’s side — and were unimpressed by Pawar’s bid for leadership when he first split the Congress in 1978, who were actually delighted when the Maratha strongman split the party again in 1999. I recall Deshmukh ruing the fact that the Congress high command paid no attention to younger leaders in the party when then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao unexpectedly sent Pawar back to the state as chief minister in 1993.
“There is a whole generation of second rung leaders ripe and ready, just waiting to take charge. Pay us also some heed and throw some crumbs our way too from time to time,” he had said, tongue firmly in cheek, during his welcome address at Pawar’s swearing-in ceremony.
Not surprisingly, then, one such leader was not too unhappy when he lost the Lok Sabha elections in 1999. “I am happy that, at least, I got a ticket. Otherwise all party and government posts would go only to those from the Congress(S). Now I can build up my constituency in the next five years.” Imagine his shock, then, when Pawar sought a formal alliance with the Congress in 2004 and took away his seat for one of his own supporters (who lost). He had to start the process all over again with another constituency, losing a decade more doing so.
But now there’s hope for the very Congressmen who were upset with the chief minister because they feared he would not be able to deliver Maharashtra to the Congress at the next elections. After the manner in which Chavan has systematically exposed and demolished the NCP leaders’ reputations, they are now enthused by the fact that the CM is in no mood to let the NCP have a cakewalk in the coming Lok Sabha elections.
I am told Pawar had believed that the seat-sharing between the two parties (22 for the NCP, 26 for the Congress) was a done deal. But the CM is now telling his party leaders that the NCP has been losing more than it has been winning and it is high time the Congress cut its losses or at least cut the NCP down to size by offering it only 16-18 seats in proportion to its winnability factor.
That has clearly got under Pawar’s skin for he has ambitions of becoming prime minister in case a Third Front emerges victorious — but with just half a dozen seats or less, who would elect him as the leader?
Congressmen in Maharashtra have been complaining for long that Pawar still tends to take the icing on the cake and has the ability to persuade their party leaders in New Delhi to do his bidding and subsequently, the plum seats and assignments go to Pawar’s supporters while they are left helplessly gritting their teeth.
But now Pawar may have met his match in the Maharashtra chief minister. Chavan is accomplishing his goals with minimum fuss and maximum optimisation of the situation on the ground. The Congress high command could not have asked for a pricklier thorn in Pawar’s flesh than Chavan. It clearly hurts.