Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar speaks to the media on the IPL controversy in New Delhi.
I cannot claim to know everything about Sharad Pawar but this much I can say with a fair amount of certainty that he seems to be losing touch with reality for there has never been a moment in both far and recent times when the union agriculture minister's credibility has been at such a low ebb. Certain events of last week reinforce that impression and I felt sorry for the mighty Maratha warlord that he has brought himself and his party to such a sorry pass.
It all began with Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav's visit to Sangli, the heart of the Nationalist Congress Party's (NCP) base, where he was scheduled to share a dais with Pawar. But Yadav today is an even more discredited leader than Pawar. Yadav was being very optimistic if he thought a man, who has been nursing the prime ministerial ambition for a longer duration than him and considers himself the best person eligible for the job in a possible third front government, will join forces with him to help another's ambition in the same direction. Pawar never turned up at Sangli--he called for a helicopter at Kolhapur where he had happily addressed another meeting and headed straight back home to Pune on the grounds of falling sugar levels and exhaustion.
I was concerned but then I was startled to discover that practically nobody bought that excuse. He is just making up a story, the media smirked, given that he had similarly fallen ill just a day before the swearing-in ceremony of Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal. Pawar had threatened the UPA with a promise to Badal to attend the ceremony but left the latter similarly stranded.
I personally felt sorry that a man who still packs tremendous horse power at his age and one who has absolutely refused to allow a debilitating illness to overcome his will and ambition cannot even be allowed a little bit of exhaustion or fatigue.
But then two days later, I wondered if my sympathies were misplaced when Pawar was found 'holidaying' (read checking out the lay of the land pre-polls) in Karnataka. Some say he was there to advice former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa about how to deal a glancing blow to the BJP while at the same time probing if he could do the same to the Congress in that state thus benefitting a third person for whom he has genuine affection - a farmer like Pawar who ended up as prime minister with just 17 MPs - something Pawar would wish happens to him too. (No prizes for guessing that this man was HD Deve Gowda.) Since Pawar had dropped off the radar for a few days, his party had to issue a clarification about his state of health, saying he was in fine fettle after previously frightening well wishers. But that once again only raised smirks from the critics and the cynics. I wish they would allow him to be at least so far as his health might be concerned.
But, clearly, Pawar is losing the battle of perception and he has only himself to blame. Nothing could have been worse than the impressions that have been created about the NCP and his nephew Ajit Pawar vis-a-vis the irrigation scam and now a severe drought has forced Pawar's core constituency -farmers -to go without water while sugar barons have enough to keep even their lawns sprinkled and green.
Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan told me some weeks ago that he believed that had previous state governments planned irrigation projects better, Maharashtra need not have faced this drought: there would have been enough water stored in the dams to overcome the shortage. Chavan is a gentleman politician, so he did not openly link corruption with the drought but it increasingly seems to me that the NCP, which has charge of those departments which directly benefit the common man, is beginning to pay less and less attention to the poor people's needs and becoming more and more rooted in quid pro quos and crony capitalism.
I do not think it is up to any of the lesser ministers to correct that perception but Pawar, as the union agriculture minister, can still pull off a trick or two in that direction. However, I sometimes begin to suspect he is not interested in a life for the NCP beyond his own ambitions. If he does not get to be PM - which I think highly unlikely despite his silent efforts to ensure that happens next year - Pawar would rather secure his daughter against the shenanigans of his nephew by dealing with the Congress and eventually handing the baton back to the mother party.
In the meantime, though, Maharashtra's farmers suffer under one of their own.
(The views expressed are personal)