Sharad Pawar has again done it. The Maharashtra strongman known for his guile and political acumen has successfully outwitted his detractors in the Congress. It seems clear now that the forthcoming Assembly polls will be contested jointly by the ruling coalition. The demand from some people in the Congress that the party should go it alone has been derailed. Pawar has ensured that his pre-eminent position remains unchanged.
Known for his ability to carry people with him, Pawar has inducted into the Maharashtra Cricket Board, former Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh who had been advocating the “Congress should go it alone” line. While Pawar has been elected unopposed as the head of the association, Deshmukh will be a vice-president. The cricket body has established the hierarchy in state politics as well and Deshmukh has had to accept Pawar’s supremacy.
Many eyebrows had been raised when the Prime Minister inducted Deshmukh into his Cabinet even though he was not a member of either House. A few months earlier, the Maratha leader known for his close proximity to Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s political advisor, Ahmed Patel, had been sacked in the wake of 26/11. Before him, Shivraj Patil, the Union Home Minister, was shown the door, a clear indication of the power struggle within the Grand Old Party.
Deshmukh’s removal had brought in Ashok Chavan, the young Maratha and former Chief Minister Shankar Rao Chavan’s son to the political centrestage. Chavan was handpicked by Rahul Gandhi for the job and is expected to lead the Congress charge in the coming polls. But both Deshmukh and another Union Minister, Prithviraj Chavan, continued to take the line that the Congress should go it alone and that the time had come to cut Pawar down to size. In the Congress, another Union Minister Sushilkumar Shinde expressed his unwillingness to accept the ‘going it alone’ line in the interests of the Congress party’s policy.
While uncertainty prevailed over the continuation of the coalition in the state, Pawar came out with another masterstroke. At the inauguration of the Worli-Bandra sea link, he suggested that the historic bridge should be named after Rajiv Gandhi. The sea link is the first major infrastructure addition to Bombay in a long time and any Maharashtra leader would have tended to be parochial.
But Pawar knew that his suggestion — made in presence of the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi — was like a six off the last ball in a decider. Pawar’s detractors in the state suggested naming the bridge after Veer Savarkar. But then the game had already been won.
The only dispute between the two parties now could be over the sharing of seats. The NCP may initially demand 50 per cent of the 288 seats but can be made to settle for around 125 seats. The Shiv Sena and the BJP are beset by factionalism that is already threatening this combination. The saffron alliance is not expected to pose any major challenge.
It is clear that the NCP-Congress alliance in the state has stabilised for the moment. Till the results, Pawar will play with a straight bat. However, he may do the pinch-hitting once the combination returns with a good number of seats for both the parties. Wonder how Deshmukh and Prithviraj Chavan will retract from their original line since the tie-up is already sealed. Or is Deshmukh looking for another term as the CM with Pawar’s help? Between us.