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HT Column: Curious case of the Nationalist Congress Party

ht view Updated: Feb 10, 2015 17:32 IST
Shailesh Gaikwad

Four months after he vowed to finish the rule of Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit on their home-turf in Pune district, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be visiting Baramati again — this time to share stage with them for a function of an institution run by the Pawars.

There is a lot of curiosity over what both the leaders will say, especially what PM Modi says about the Pawar uncle-nephew duo on February 14. As long as Pawar’s party is concerned, its ‘now-on, now-off’ relation with the BJP is no more a surprise in state’s political circles: It snapped ties with the Congress and contested Assembly elections solo, extended outside support to the BJP to form government in the state, then staked claim on the position of the main opposition party in the legislature. Recently, it started targeting the BJP over its policies and is now again warming up to Modi.

NCP’s flip-flop over the BJP started right from its birth. In 1998-99 when Pawar rebelled against Congress president Sonia Gandhi and floated the party, one of the top politicians who was reportedly in touch with him was senior BJP leader Pramod Mahajan.

According to some NCP leaders, Mahajan was keen on forming a BJP-NCP-Shiv Sena axis in Maharashtra to counter Congress. Last Saturday, senior NCP leader Praful Patel revealed that former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had offered a cabinet berth to Pawar to join his NDA government at the Centre. After the assembly elections in 1999, the NCP leadership toyed with the idea of forming a government with BJP-Sena alliance but then decided against it. After Mahajan, his brother-in-law Gopinath Munde kept attacking NCP, but another senior leader Nitin Gadkari shared personal rapport with him.

According to Pawar’s aides, the NCP voter base is more similar to the Congress than the BJP or the Shiv Sena, which is why the party would stand to lose more than gain if it formally joins the BJP or Sena. At the same time, it did not want the Congress to overpower it and hence kept some form of friendship alive with the BJP.

But then why is PM Modi being friendly with Pawar knowing well that many of his followers in Maharashtra would not like to see him sharing dais with head of the party that is embroiled in several corruption cases?

Top functionaries from both NCP and BJP have an explanation for this. Both PM Modi and BJP president Amit Shah want to minimise Congress’ presence. Nobody can take voters for granted and one never knows when the political climate would change. This means the Congress may be able to bounce back if it remains the main opposition party across India. Things, however, could not be so easy for it, if it doesn’t remain as the only option to the BJP. The party has lost that position in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and now even Delhi.

BJP leadership would love to see the same happening in Maharashtra — once a stronghold of Congress. If NCP becomes stronger, it can occupy Congress’ space, feel many in both the parties. PM Modi’s visit to Baramati assumes significance Modi would prefer Pawar as a personal friend while his party remains a strong opponent of the BJP. It is yet not clear whether Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis — who is not keen for a friendship with Pawars — changes his stand towards the NCP. His government has just begun probe into allegations against former NCP ministers.