On the eve of the last phase of polling in Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar, 74, was giving instructions to his staff in Delhi to organise meetings that April weekend about an agricultural export. The country's agriculture minister had switched gears as the campaigning wound down. That evening he was more willing to discuss India's agricultural performance than the possible scenarios when the general election would be called on May 16.
Pawar did not contest from his pocket borough Baramati, now bequeathed to daughter Supriya Sule, or from the constituency he adopted in 2009, Madha--a first for a man who has contested every local, state assembly and general election since 1967. But this election outcome, both his Nationalist Congress Party as well the Congress, will have a great bearing on his politics in the years to come. In that sense, it will be prove to be an election with far-reaching consequences for him personally and for his party.
Pawar's aim in the run-up to this election has been two-fold: to increase the tally of NCP MPs from the measly eight garnered in the last election and to simultaneously re-invigorate his enviable network across leaders of all political parties. The pre-poll surveys have not given the NCP more than six to nine seats. The NCP contested 21 of Maharashtra's 48 Lok Sabha seats; the remaining were with the Congress and others.
Pawar's own assessment, the one he was willing to share, was more qualitative than quantitative; the political climate was heavily against the ruling coalition, United Progressive Alliance, of which the NCP has been a partner, he said. Read between the lines, it meant that he too envisaged a non-UPA government.
The key question: what role does Pawar see for himself in this seemingly unfavourable scenario? Political chroniclers like analyst-psephologist Suhas Palshikar, of the political science department of Pune University, and veteran journalist Kumar Ketkar have said in the past that Pawar follows power, wherever it may be and whichever colour it may be clothed in. It follows then that he would arrive at some understanding with the non-UPA coalition of parties to support it in return for some dividends.
The ambitious and manoeuvring Pawar would like a non-National Democratic Alliance formation of parties--called Third Front or Secular Front or any other nomenclature--as this would increase his post-poll role in Delhi. "I am one person who can talk to any leader across the spectrum," he told me in that April interview. "Even the Left will have to support such an alliance now," he added.
He sees a role for himself in such an alliance though the NCP's seat tally may not be sufficient for him to aspire to become the Prime Minister. But with Pawar you can never tell which way he will get the wind to blow. It will make things a whole lot easier for him if the UPA were to support such an alliance of the non-UPA and non-NDA parties. This is the best case scenario for a man unused to being out of power, but with Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi insisting that he would not support such a government, Pawar may have been forced to re-evaluate his options.
In the event that the Narendra Modi-led BJP propels the NDA into power with post-poll alliances, Pawar reckoned that party president Rajnath Singh rather than Modi would become the Prime Minister. This leaves Pawar with two options: either he takes an ideological leap and seeks a role in the saffron set-up--which would call for an adjustment in his personal politics--or concentrate on retaining power in Maharashtra.
Were he to flirt with his saffron political friends for a share of power, it would instantly bring down the Congress-NCP government in the state and push Maharashtra into an early assembly election. This, NCP sources say, the party is not yet fully prepared for. It would also lead to a major re-alignment of the political axis in the state, as Pawar would jeopardise the 25-year-old alliance between the BJP and Shiv Sena. Sena working president Uddhav Thackeray has been virulently anti-Pawar.
"The ideal mutually beneficial political alignment for the BJP now would be between itself, NCP and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS). But it could be a figment of imagination of a few BJP leaders," said Ketkar.
Since Pawar separated from the Congress in 1999 over the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign origin and established the NCP, his ambition has been to trounce the parent party in the state and have his own government, or at least lead the alliance government. It has not come to pass yet. It remains a smouldering ambition.
Given that Maharashtra assembly election is due before October this year, Pawar would factor this into any understanding or deal that he would work out in Delhi on or after May 16. Indeed, on the final day of campaigning for the general election, as the temperature soared in Varanasi, Pawar held a meeting of his party leaders to review the general election campaigning and strategise for the assembly election.
For Pawar what's at stake in the 2014 general election, then, is not only his dream of the top job or a cabinet position in the central government. The election result will be a test of his five-decade-old secularist politics and set the course for the NCP in Maharashtra.