Top leaders from across the political spectrum are likely to attend a grand function organised in New Delhi on Thursday to celebrate Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar’s 75th birthday, so the question is: What is next on his agenda?
After being part of Congress-led government at the Centre for a decade, Pawar is seen hobnobbing with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his lieutenants. At the same time, he is friendly with the Congress and even supports anti-BJP initiatives. And political analysts say he may play an important role to cobble together a non-BJP, non-Congress coalition in the run-up to the next general elections. There is even speculation that he could succeed Pranab Mukherjee as President in 2017. His close aides do not rule out any possibility but insist that the only person who would know is Pawar himself.
For almost five decades, Sharad Pawar has been a prime factor in Maharashtra and a key leader in national politics. He began his political career with the Congress, became chief minister of Maharashtra four times and twice split the Congress to form his own political party. He made a bid for the prime minister’s post after Rajiv Gandhi’s death, but had to be content with the defence ministry before returning to Maharashtra as chief minister in 1993. Then he was India’s agriculture minister for a decade till the Congress-led coalition was voted out of power in 2014. This sums up Pawar’s political career but the Maharashtra politician’s influence goes beyond that. He has been directly or indirectly responsible for the formation or running of at least eight governments in the state since 1978. Over the years, Pawar has taken landmark decisions and initiatives and won accolades and faced his share of brickbats.
Tried Social Engineering
“He has been in public life for 50 years despite highs and lows, which in itself is an achievement. In a caste-ridden politics dominated by the Maratha community, he tried to do social engineering. The success of his attempts can be debated but he did try it,”says Dr Ratnakar Mahajan, former head of the state planning board and a long-time aide of Pawar who parted ways with him a few years ago.
He also groomed a number of young politicians who are now the NCP’s frontline leaders. “He developed his own brand of politics, a blend of development and social engineering. He keeps track of what is happening globally and how it will impact us,” says NCP leader Jayant Patil, whom Pawar entrusted with Maharashtra’s finance department for a decade.
Pawar began with the Congress but quit the party to form Maharashtra’s first non-Congress government. He floated his political party, the Congress (S), in 1978. He remained a key figure among the opposition leaders during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister, but merged his party with the Congress in 1987 under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi. However, he fell out with Sonia Gandhi and again floated the NCP in 1999.
Though he has cordial relations with the BJP, he has never aligned with that party. In fact, Pawar has always been close to the Congress ideology. After running the state government with the Congress for 15 years, he parted ways with the party ahead of the 2014 assembly polls, and even helped the BJP government survive its first trust vote. He is now slowly coming closer to the Congress again.
“Pawar’s USP has always been secular politics. He would prefer to be with the Congress and not the BJP,” said political analyst Pratap Asbe.
“He never went entirely with the Left or the Right but charted the middle road. In my opinion, he would go with the Congress,” says DrMahajan.
Pawar’s critics, however, say he aligns with the Congress only because he cannot win power on his own. Pawar has never been able to win power in the state on his own unlike regional satraps such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, NT Rama Rao, M Karunanidhi, J Jayalalitha, Nitish Kumar, Mayawati or Mamata Banerjee. This is probably because the state has a strong Congress presence and the anti-Congress space is occupied by the BJP and the Shiv Sena. “Pawar could never win support of the Vidarbha region. So he never had the numbers to form a government on his own in Maharashtra,” says Asbe.
Asbe believes Pawar made a mistake by merging his Congress (S) with the Congress in 1987. “Else, he would have emerged as a strong national leader in the anti-Congress space and might have even become prime minister,” he says.
Political analysts call it a strategic blunder on Pawar’s part. The other blunder was the series of controversies that he has been facing for the past two decades, which damaged his image. Pawar did not make an efforts to counter the allegations.
So what next for Pawar and his party?
As far as Pawar is concerned, he can continue to play a key role in politics, say both DrMahajan and Patil.
However, he has limitations. Age is not on his side and the image of his party has been tarnished by a string of scams and controversies.
In fact, after ruling the state for 15 years, his party is facing a crisis. The leaders mentored by Pawar face allegations of corruption. His nephew Ajit Pawar, who is seen as his political heir, suffered a serious setback with the allegations of involvement in the irrigation scam in the state.
Another NCP leader, Chhagan Bhujbal, is facing a probe in connection with scams in the public works department that he handled for five years. NCP leaders are also accused of committing irregularities and running private fiefdoms in the cooperative sector that forms the backbone of Maharashtra’s rural economy.
Besides, when his party shared power in Maharashtra for 15 years, Pawar was not seen as someone leading from the front. While other states became aggressive in developing industry and infrastructure, Maharashtra was seen slipping. Pawar shared power with the Congress at the Centre and in the state but was rarely seen stepping in to resolve problems. Whether it was the agrarian crisis or developing infrastructure, he was not seen doing much. The perception was that Pawar was spending more time and effort in retaining control of his party and state politics.
Besides, his major headache will now be the succession plan in the party. Over the past few years, Ajit Pawar has emerged as a clear successor but he doesn’t enjoy respect and support in the party like his uncle. Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule is more interested in politics in Delhi. Various senior leaders in the party do not get along well with the nephew and feel left out.
“What happens to the NCP in the coming years is anybody’s guess,” says DrMahajan.
Patil, however, differs. “These kind of predictions are done with all parties. Earlier, they said the Sena and the BJP would face such problems. Now they also say many in Congress will not prefer Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. Time will tell what happens. Pawarsaheb has developed a strong second rung leadership and we will keep the party going,” says Patil.