There was a time in the 1990s when Sharad Pawar as chief minister of Maharashtra would trust no one but family and close friends in the power and irrigation departments. Either his nephew Ajit or his brother-in-law Padamsinh Patil held the departments including, at one time, the home department. This kind of arrangement extended even to the time when Pawar was the defence minister, attempting to rule Maharashtra through a proxy chief minister (Sudhakarrao Naik) who, not surprisingly, soon rebelled and caused maximum damage to Pawar's reputation.
Pawar's cozy arrangements did not escape the attention of even his core supporters who wondered why none of them could be trusted with these departments as even bureaucrats posted to these offices were acolytes who continued to serve Pawar well even after their retirement.
Those were the years when the US-based Enron Power Corporation first stepped into India and subsequently messed up the state’s power situation through two governments -- the Congress government led by Pawar and the Shiv Sena-BJP government headed by Manohar Joshi. But Pawar always had the benefit of doubt though everyone by now has a sense of what Ajit got out of not growing out of the irrigation department - he seems to have fallen victim to the gross irregularities that took place in that department under his rather long watch.
In the scramble for big departments, irrigation seemed an insignificant portfolio to be stuck with but we now know how this department was used to perpetrate injustices on Vidarbha which is a region that votes for the Congress despite all its faults, but never so much for the NCP. Similarly, agriculture might not be among the Big Four in the union government but as the Congress's vote bank goes, it is equally crucial to that party's interests.
And look how Pawar set up the Congress on this one. For, little noticed at the time was the fact that when UPA-1 wrote off the loans of farmers very few from Vidarbha benefitted, shocking even union finance minister P Chidambaram and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, leaving them wondering how they could have overlooked that significant detail.
But it was on Pawar's advice that that package had been structured in a manner that initially benefitted only farmers with large land holdings (as in Pawar's home turf of western Maharashtra) and not the bit farmers of Vidarbha. Of course, following the clamour raised by Maharashtra's Congress politicians, the anomaly was corrected quickly enough but Pawar gets away with such acts only because he works through trusted lieutenants who dutifully execute even some obviously wrong decisions and without protest even take the rap when things go awry or Pawar gets caught out (though the latter bit is rather rare).
However, more crucial to Pawar's way of functioning is that he has always been able to win over his leaders including, once upon a time, Rajiv Gandhi and now Manmohan Singh who for long has considered Pawar one of his best ministers.
Nevertheless, in the last couple of years rising food inflation under Pawar's watch and speculative price rises based on Pawar's coded comments has compelled the PM to reassess and monitor the working of the agricultural ministry through his own trusted men. Since then much of Pawar's advice in terms of the need to export or import various agricultural products were opposed by his Congress deputies and accepted with alacrity by the Cabinet, leaving Pawar with little room for manoeuvre.
Now, though, with the latest Cabinet reshuffle, Pawar seems to have got a breather, with another trusted man installed as his deputy -- Tariq Anwar, one of the three original founders of the NCP along with Pawar and Purno Sangma --who makes his debut in the Union government as minister of state for agriculture.
I wonder how much Anwar really knows about agriculture. Even if he does, I doubt his capacity to stand up to his own party president. However, I do not think this latest cozy arrangement has quite gone unnoticed by the higher-ups in the government.
Rather, I believe it is a little something held out to Pawar for turning down his bigger demand -- that his daughter, Supriya Sule, be accommodated as minister of state for rural development in place of Agatha Sangma who had to go as she chose her father over her party during the presidential election earlier this year. Only, Pawar wanted his daughter to be given independent charge but with just eight MPs, that was akin to asking for the moon, I should have thought.
So it is lose some, win some for Pawar once again, though he seems to be losing more than winning these days. Sadly, the losses seem to include the previously unquestioned trust of his peers. Now whose doing would that be, I wonder.