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A Pawar play gone awry

The ‘regionalism’, which ostensibly was to be the basis for future growth of the Nationalist Congress Party, has also failed to take off. Rajdeep Sardesai writes.

india Updated: May 08, 2012 17:05 IST
Rajdeep Sardesai

If a week is a long time in politics, then a decade is truly an eternity. This ancient political truism has been driven home this week yet again as the Nationalist Congress Party ‘celebrated’ its 10th anniversary. Only days before the ‘celebration’ one of its senior leaders and party MP, Padamsinh Patil, was arrested for murder, a grim reminder of the creeping criminalisation of Maharashtra’s political elite. And just a fortnight ago, one of its founders, PA Sangma, had apologised to Sonia Gandhi for raising the foreign origins issue. If ever there was a prize for a political somersault then this was a gold medal-winning effort.

A decade ago, the former Lok Sabha speaker from Meghalaya had been the driving force behind the anti-Sonia campaign. Yet, at the ministerial swearing-in of the UPA government, the animosities seemed to be a forgotten chapter. As Sonia Gandhi applauded Agatha Sangma’s swearing-in as the youngest MP, the father couldn’t resist sharing the joyous moment. What price is the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty or foreign origins when you can start your own dynasty in the Garo hills?

This is perhaps a question that could be posed to Sharad Pawar in the context of Maharashtra. With a talented daughter now ensconced as the MP from Baramati and an ambitious nephew who runs a parallel empire in Pune, Pawar has slowly established his family raj in the state. Now, the NCP claims it wasn’t an anti-dynasty party, but was only against the idea of a person of ‘foreign origins’ becoming the Prime Minister of the country. But the issue of foreign origin was settled five years ago when Sonia Gandhi listened to her ‘inner voice’ and chose not to become the Prime Minister. Why then should the NCP still exist as a political party?

The question is significant because it is being raised just months ahead of the crucial Maharashtra Assembly elections, scheduled for later this year. It has gathered momentum because a section of the Congress leadership is now advocating a ‘go it alone’ policy in every state. Maharashtra though, is not quite Bihar, or even UP. The RJD and the Samajwadi Party were built on a streak of anti-Congressism, so a parting of ways was hardly surprising. The NCP, in contrast, is a party which has emerged from the womb of the Congress. The two parties are competing for an identical vote base, which is why an alliance break-up could result in a vote split and almost certain election defeat.

The NCP and the Congress must consider the proposal for a merger. When asked this question last week, Pawar made it clear that there was no question of disbanding the NCP and that the party’s identity was intact. Asked what that identity was, he had replied that the NCP stood for ‘democratic decentralisation’.

On the face of it. that’s a powerful reason to maintain an independent identity. Why should any self-respecting, powerful regional boss spend days doing the rounds of the Delhi durbar when he can easily run a private fief in his state? In the prevailing political arrangement, a party with even a handful of MPs can demand, and get, sufficient ministries. With just nine MPs, but three ministers, the NCP has a decent strike rate. As an independent party, it can bargain with the Congress leadership for a greater share in the Maharashtra and the central pie. As part of the Congress, it would have to be satisfied with the crumbs that are thrown in its direction.

The NCP doesn’t even have a distinctive agenda that goes beyond just power-sharing. The ‘nationalism’ that was the basis for its creation went out the day Sonia Gandhi made her foreign origins irrelevant to the public discourse. More damagingly, the ‘regionalism’, which ostensibly was to be the basis for future growth of the NCP, has also failed to take off. The DMK, despite the scandalous manner in which Karunanidhi has tried to reduce it to a family firm, remains a party whose cadres believe it stands for Tamil interests. The Trinamool’s recent success has been in identifying itself with a Bengali sub-nationalism, much as Naveen Patnaik has succeeded in creating a sense of Oriya pride through the Biju Janata Dal.

The NCP’s great failure lies in its inability to be seen as a pan-Maharashtra party. Instead, it’s been reduced to a sub-regional party with limited appeal outside its original sugar co-operative heartland of western Maharashtra. And even here it’s slowly been typecast as a Maratha-dominated party which represents the interests of the agrarian bourgeoisie with strong links to the new business and real estate barons of urban Maharashtra. To be branded as a party of crorepatis is hardly the basis for building a mass organisation.

Moreover, a powerful section of its local leadership has now openly advocated reservations for Marathas, scarcely the recipe for creating a progressive, inclusive society. The few non-Maratha leaders within the party hierarchy have either been marginalised or are increasingly restive at being excluded from the decision-making apparatus.

Caught in the midst of this inner-party turmoil is a leader who for three decades now has been the eternal prime minister-in-waiting. It is almost certain now that Sharad Pawar will not fulfill JRD Tata’s alleged prophecy that he would become the Prime Minister of India one day. A pragmatic politician, Pawar perhaps realises that at 69, his moment may have gone. Which is why he has one eye on his ICC presidentship, the World Cup of 2011, and a possible retirement to his farm. In a sense, it is only appropriate that the NCP’s symbol is a clock. It’s a daily reminder to its party leadership of the need to turn the clock back and return to the party of their origin.

Rajdeep Sardesai is editor in chief, IBN Network