Inaugurating a party office in Ahmedabad on Sunday, Sharad Pawar made two statements that are a departure from his positions in the recent past — he called for a mahagatbandhan of all secular forces against the BJP (remember the NCP had offered suo moto support to the BJP government in Maharashtra) and he minced no words against a chief minister (Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh) throwing his usual political caution to the winds.
I had written in this column a few weeks ago that Pawar was under pressure from a section of his party to do a Jaiprakash Narayan act against Narendra Modi. I had also opined that Pawar was too much of a believer in democracy and the processes of law to lead the country into chaos and anarchy.
However, a week ago at a party meeting of senior leaders, according to reliable sources, two factions in the NCP almost came to blows over which way the party should go. Unknown to most of them was the fact that Supriya Sule, Pawar’s daughter, who has been rooting for distancing the party from the BJP, had met Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi over two lunches and one dinner even as elections to five state assemblies were underway. These meetings culminated in one between Rahul and Pawar at the latter’s home in New Delhi — the seeds of a rainbow coalition in the country were sown at that meeting.
Now at this NCP brainstorming one section of leaders accused the other — comprising mostly those who had influence in New Delhi — of selling Sharad Pawar down the drain. This group had been advising Pawar to seek some sort of lasting arrangement with the BJP. The group that has been wanting Pawar to lead a coalition of anti-BJP forces accused the others of cashing in on Pawar’s considerable `varchasva’ to their own self interests. “Tumhi Sahebana vikat ghetla,’’ they accused this pro-BJP group.
Pawar, I am told, then piped up with the (sarcastic) comment that Modi was a liberal leader who would take the country forward — that silenced the room in an instance as everybody recognised that Pawar had finally made up his mind about which way to go.
When soon after this came reports that Pawar had met Rahul Gandhi, I knew there had been a tectonic shift in the polity again. For Pawar to undertake this networking of non-saffron parties, it is very important to get the Congress on board again. And Rahul’s meeting with Pawar indicates they are willing to bury their distrust of each other in common interest — various leaders may be cold to Rahul’s efforts at a national mahagatbandhan but Pawar may just be able to pull it off.
However, many Congress leaders are still wary about Pawar and wonder if he could be trusted to be sincere about this effort, particularly after he accepted a Padma Vibhushan from the Modi government. However, I believe that Pawar’s sudden activity, after the stupor he has been in since 2014, may also be motivated by selfish interest — and that is why he might really be sincere this time. Pawar’s ambition is no secret, but he never stood a chance in past years to become Prime Minister. But now with Modi seeming unstoppable and even the NDA partners becoming worried that their alliance with the BJP could prove detrimental in the future, Pawar has a figthing chance at gaining that office if he is able to put together and lead the coalition of secular forces against the BJP in 2019.
His network is indeed enviable — Omar Abdullah had stayed at Pawar’s home while working in Bombay. Biju Patnaik was a close friend of Pawar’s and Orissa chief minister Navin Patnaik looks upon his father’s friend fondly. Ditto Uddhav Thackeray — Balasaheb and Pawar’s friendship is legendary. Pawar is credited with persuading Mayawati to vote against the AB Vajpyee government in parliament in 1999, leading to its fall. He has a line to both Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh and also has a lifelong friendship with Prakash Singh Badal dating back to the time when both were fighting for farmers’ interests in the 1970s. Pawar is also on good terms with Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar and is known to have adviced Jaganmohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. He has always got along famously with former PM HD Deve Gowda in Karnataka. He has a good rapport with both Dravida parties in Tamil Nadu and his socialist philosophies make the Communist parties amenable to him. Everywhere else there is the Congress and he already has Rahul Gandhi in his bag!