Legend has grown around Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar that he doesn’t forget tasks given by elders, or a younger person’s name. The carriers of this legend also say he never fails to keep some cards up his sleeves to surprise his critics and admirers alike.
Two such surprises made news recently. First, he declared he would not work under Rahul Gandhi and ensured his party attended a “non-Congress, non-BJP” conclave of 14 regional parties that pledged to put up a united front against communal forces.
Second, the NCP has decided to file candidates in select constituencies in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and probably Chhattisgarh. So, while he remains the biggest ally of the Congress in the UPA and runs a coalition government in Maharashtra for 14 years, he also wants to maintain the party’s identity in other states. Earlier, Pawar had fielded candidates in Gujarat and remains a part of the Left-sponsored UDF coalition in Kerala.
It is clear the NCP is carefully watching the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Rajasthan. Pawar’s key colleague and union minister Praful Patel says, “Let us wait for the results of the assembly polls as the results may throw some light on what the voters are thinking.”
Patel defends the party’s decision to attend the anti-communalism meeting and sees political potential in this initiative.
“The UPA may need the support of like-minded parties after the 2014 elections. So, it is always desirable to unite secular parties on a common platform, even if it is a non-political forum. We need to reach out to the secular parties and other like-minded parties,” he said.
Despite such assertion, the real ‘Pawar play’ lies somewhere in the middle as the teams are approaching the Final Match—the 2014 election. If the badly battered Congress, facing anti-incumbency, goes down substantially from its record tally of 206 seats in the current Lok Sabha, it may boost aspirations of other parties to demand the Prime Minister’s seat.
“The Congress can be asked to support a coalition for the sake of keeping the communal forces at bay. And everyone knows that Sharad Pawar enjoys tremendous rapport across party lines and can garner allies under his umbrella,” says an NCP strategist.
If the Congress emerges weaker in the assembly polls, the NCP can also boost its demand for a larger share of seats in Maharashtra in the general election.
The NCP strategist said Pawar may ask all his top-ranking leaders such as Ajit Pawar and Chhagan Bhujbal to contest the LS polls to maximise the NCP’s chances.
“He knows very well that numbers matter and in the coalition where the Congress’ chips are down, he can squeeze out a bigger role for himself even if he does not get the PM’s berth,” says a leader who knows Pawar for more than 30 years.