Praful Patel had laughed out real loud when I asked him in October 2004 how the NCP had managed to diddle the Congress out of more seats than his party strictly deserved (around 130 out of 288 in the Maharashtra Assembly).
“Well, we might have settled for less. But if someone is giving us more, who are we to turn down the offer?” Patel was much amused.
But the NCP is no longer laughing up its sleeve. It has taken five years for the Congress to catch on but it has finally found a few tough negotiators who owe Sharad Pawar nothing and are proving hard nuts to crack.
In 2004, almost all of the Congress negotiators were Pawar men (or women). Prabha Rau and Margaret Alva owed much to the Maratha warlord; Govindrao Adik was nursing the dream that Pawar will get the Congress to give him more than he was prepared to do so himself when Adik was
his own man in the Congress and Sushil Kumar Shinde, then Chief Minister and a former worker of Pawar’s, simply did not want to take on his former mentor.
Now the negotiators include a team of people who have been hurt more than they have been helped by Sharad Pawar — Vilasrao Deshmukh, Kripa Shankar Singh, Gurudas Kamat and even Ashok Chavan. None of them might take on Pawar openly but not one will concede to the NCP more than it deserves, either.
It is no wonder then that it is more the NCP than the Congress which has retreated to lick its wounds after Monday’s talks failed to
move the Congress and the NCP found it could fool its ally no longer.
The NCP, I am told, suggested that six seats out of 48 in the Lok Sabha be set aside for allies of both and the remaining be divided equally between the two parties. I am really breathless at the audacity of the scheme — for the Congress might need only two seats for their allies (R.S. Gavai and Prakash Ambedkar) while the NCP needs four.
To realise the enormity of this fudge one has to look at the allies. Strangely, the Samajwadi Party is a NCP ally in Maharashtra — an alliance forged at a time when Amar Singh was spewing venom at Sonia Gandhi. The Congress is not even certain that it will continue with its arrangement with the SP in Uttar Pradesh because if Mulayam Singh does not follow up on his promise to keep away from Kalyan Singh, the Congress is likely to bid goodbye to the SP for it will not deal with this demolisher of the Babri Masjid.
Of the remaining three seats that the NCP wants for its allies only one will go to a friend — Ramdas Athawale who, unlike Gavai and Ambedkar who have their own identities, is nothing without Pawar. The Congress is not sure that the NCP will actually give away the other two seats to another RPI faction (Jogendra Kawade’s who is now quite anti-NCP) and to the Janata Dal United (the Malegaon seat). That would then leave the NCP with 25 and the Congress with only 21. Breathless? So am I!
Only Sharad Pawar could have gerrymandered to this extent but I think he has failed to estimate the degree of both the paranoia and the wisdom among Congress leaders now — there will be no budging the Congress, this time round.
As a veteran Congressman told me: “If we are not careful at this stage, they will get more MPs and that will impact our showing at the Assembly elections, as well. The NCP will then say they have more MPs so they need more Assembly seats and we will go for a toss.”
However, I believe Pawar could still have got away with it but it is the lack of patience on the part of his supporters that has skewered the pitch for him. Congress workers in Maharashtra have long been complaining that they have no ears in New Delhi and that Pawar manages to hoodwink their leadership into a better deal for the NCP despite contrary reports from the ground by grassroots workers.
This time, though, the ambition of Pawar’s supporters to see him as PM ran away with them while their timing went all wrong — they chose a moment when Dr Manmohan Singh was admitted to hospital for a heart bypass thinking that was the end of the Prime Minister. That quite sickened all Congress leaders in New Delhi. And with the PM back on his feet it is now they who are having the last laugh.