With Sharad Pawar you can never be sure until, well, you are absolutely sure. The Union agriculture minister for long has been avowing that he will opt out of electoral politics and not contest another Lok Sabha election any more. But that is what he had said even before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and then we suddenly had him capitulate to the demand of party workers not to quit. He contested, again.
However, having won eight Lok Sabha elections, including one in 1984 against the tide on a Congress(S) ticket, while the Congress(I) swept not just Maharashtra but the rest of the country as well, Pawar has very little to prove, though many of his detractors would disagree. He swept from a new constituency the last time as well but now there are those who would say he was not likely to win from Madha again. For one, he has not been able to make a Baramati of his new constituency. Second, several scams have hit the NCP and voters are unlikely to forgive Pawar for his nephew Ajit Pawar’s crass and uncharitable remarks last summer in the wake of his alleged involvement in a multi-crore irrigation scam asking farmers if he should urinate into the dams to provide water to their fields.
I recall a time in 1991 when former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had wished that PV Narasimha Rao run for elections from Ramtek in Maharashtra. No one then knew that Gandhi would be tragically assassinated a few months later and Rao would become prime minister. But Sharad Pawar may have had a sense of the competition that Rao could pose in the future for he flatly turned down Gandhi’s request saying, “You either win Ramtek or you win Maharashtra.” Gandhi was shocked beyond words and pulled Rao out of the race for Pawar clearly meant that if he were to ensure Rao’s victory, he would have to slog hard and would not be left with enough time and resources to campaign in the rest of Maharashtra.
Things have a way of coming full circle and Pawar today is in the piquant situation of either contesting from his seat and winning or else opting out so that he has more time to ensure that other NCP contestants win. For the picture, I am told, is not at all rosy for the NCP. Some private and internal surveys over the past months reveal that it may not be able to win more than half a dozen seats in the Lok Sabha elections and Pawar needs to muster all the resources at his disposal to double the tally.
A dead giveaway of what might be awaiting the party is the fact that Pawar has been pressing party stalwarts, among them many ministers in the Maharashtra government, to put their weight behind the polls by contesting from their strongholds themselves. Most ministers know they are being set up as lambs for the slaughter and are turning down the request. I am told Pawar quite lost his temper when more than one minister wished to bow out of the race. “It is not for you to decide if you will contest or not, if the party says so, you will have to fall in line,” he scolded.
This is a far cry from the time when people were falling over their feet to secure a party ticket. Today, their gumption in saying no to the Maratha strongman is an indication of Pawar’s diminishing clout within his own party and he may have only himself to blame for stretching the succession issue for so long that Ajit is now rebellious and everybody else disenchanted.
Though Pawar may now have little to prove, still there’s some unfinished business: like getting to the so-far elusive office of prime minister. Like Manmohan Singh, Pawar too can pave his way to the top office through the Rajya Sabha, provided election results permit it, and of course, Sonia Gandhi is willing. It goes without saying that these are the biggest hurdles he must now cross.