A couple of weeks into the demonetisation drive, I was startled to receive a call from more than one of Sharad Pawar’s close supporters who raged that his shifting stances on Narendra Modi were hugely confusing the party cadre.
Pawar had begun by welcoming the drive against black money. A few days later, sharing a stage with Modi, both leaders had heaped praises on each other, Modi even going so far as to say Pawar had walked him through the minefield of politics by holding his little finger. That caused immense damage to the Nationalist Congress Party’s vote bank — it is not without reason that the party has done considerably badly in the series of civic polls in the state. The BJP and the Congress have emerged as the main contenders, the NCP has often been fourth behind even the Shiv Sena.
Perhaps Pawar has been able to assess the damage on his dual stand, for, last week, at a party workers’ meet in Nashik, he went farther than any other leader opposed to Modi has been willing to go — he called Modi a “dictator’’ in no uncertain terms. For better measure, he added Modi was leading the country towards anarchy.
My conversations with his party workers lead me to believe that they may have forced him to take that unambiguous position — NCP workers admit that their party has ended up as the tamest political animal in the country and much of that has to do with Pawar’s own personal positions and ambitions.
For one, Pawar is positioning himself for a presidential race — ideally he would like the government to nominate him to the office and that is said to be behind his multiple attempts to woo Narendra Modi. According to informed sources, Modi’s condition for that nomination is that Pawar must merge his party with the BJP first — but that puts Pawar in a bind. I am sure he knows in his heart of hearts that for the first time ever since Independence, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is in a position to elect its own ideologue to Rashtrapati Bhavan and Pawar is unlikely to be that candidate. Secondly, even if he were sure that Modi would not go back on his word to nominate him to that office, the NCP would be dead even before the merger — dozens of leaders and hundreds of workers are waiting for an opportune moment to desert the Pawars and switch to a party that might offer them a better future. Despite its dismal state, the Congress still stands as a better option for the NCP rank and file and either way then Pawar would be left with no party at all.
That is a risk he cannot afford to take for the sake of his daughter whom he is grooming to gradually take over from him. In the meantime, though, it is becoming obvious that Pawar is waiting for the potential break-up of the alliance between the BJP and the Shiv Sena. There seems to be no love lost between the two allies who are bickering at each other with the quarrels likely to continue through the civic polls. Ultimately, the results of the elections to the Brihanmumbai and Thane municipal corporations will determine whether the alliance stays or goes — if the Sena wins, it is likely to be back to status quo. A loss for the Sena would, however, mean a tectonic shift in the politics of the state — and perhaps the country — and that is what Pawar is eagerly anticipating.
In the meantime, though, he must salvage some of his voter base – and much of this lies among the farmers who have been the major sufferers during the demonetisation. The cash crunch led to poor returns on their kharif crop and even the rabi sowing season was destroyed due to lack of funds to buy seeds and fertilisers. As a former agriculture minister and doyen of the co-operative movement, Pawar cannot be seen to be chasing his own dreams at the cost of their welfare. So he neatly placed himself in the “sufferers’’ category — he had sown brinjal in two acres of his personal farmland, he said, but the returns did not pay for even the transportation costs. “If this is my situation what might be that of the poor farmer?’’
Pawar at least can write off the losses, the poor farmer cannot. But he can punish those who betrayed his trust. At the hustings.