When Sharad Pawar split the Congress in 1999, a party MP -- then close to Pawar but one who chose to go with the Congress instead -- told me, “Pawar is not bothered about Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. All that worries him is losing his prominent seating position in the Lok Sabha.”
When asked to explain, he said that as leader of the Opposition in the previous House, Pawar had a place in the first row of the Lok Sabha benches. The party was sure that it would not sweep Maharashtra the way it had in the previous election in 1998. Hence, Pawar knew he would lose the tag of Opposition leader and will have to sit in the middle or back rows as an ordinary MP. “As the leader of his own party, he would be allotted a seat in the front benches. That’s why he has broken from the Congress.”
I have taken that assertion with a fistful of salt all these years. Now, however, I am becoming increasingly convinced that these small indulgences are rather important to Pawar. So, despite what his spokesperson Praful Patel says, Pawar is really fighting for a prominent place in the Cabinet in the absence of natural precedence, given that he has such few seats in the Lok Sabha.
But that’s not just all. After they were over the initial shock and surprise at his ‘rebellion’, Congressmen in Maharashtra are laughing up their sleeves and taking Pawar head-on. According to them, Pawar has another axe to grind: what worries him more is the fact that he may now have to kowtow to someone who, in Pawar’s own words, he ‘brought into politics by holding his finger’. That man is Union minister for power Sushil Kumar Shinde who, too, chose Sonia Gandhi over Pawar in 1999 and is now most likely to be made leader of the House in place of Pranab Mukherjee, who has moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan. That will give Shinde, who Pawar still considers to be just his ‘worker’ rather than a leader in his own right, place of prominence in the Lok Sabha and, more importantly, the chairmanship of various Groups of Ministers and committees in Parliament. It is quite unacceptable to Pawar that he should have to take a secondary position to his own ‘worker’ and this is the real deal that he is bargaining for with the Congress high command.
“But you know what our party is like,” a senior minister told me, “It will look good for us to have a Dalit in that position. We have to look out for our interests too. And our high command does not want to deprive Shinde of the job.”
It is no wonder then that the NCP, threatening a pullout, continues to hold its horses with each passing deadline. Congressmen in Maharashtra are convinced that Pawar, come what may, will never let go of the trappings of power because he has another major concern that he wishes Manmohan Singh to address: a Cabinet berth for his daughter, Supriya Sule.
I am told that Pawar has made up his mind to boot out Agatha Sangma, daughter of Purno Sangma (who rebelled against the NCP to contest the presidential elections), and that he wants that berth for Sule. But, again, he wants more than just that: he wishes his daughter be given independent charge, knowing that a minister of state has no powers at the Centre. The high office is being sought to secure her against the shenanigans of her cousin Ajit Pawar, Maharashta’s deputy chief minister, who has systematically isolated her and even alienated his own uncle in the NCP. “If you ask NCP workers to choose today, most of them will go with Ajit rather than Pawar or his daughter for the simple reason that Ajit does more for them than Pawar ever has or Supriya ever can,” they say.
But for a party with just nine (and now perhaps eight) MPs, it could be difficult to secure two Cabinet berths and one with independent charge. So the move to rein in Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan, who Congressmen are anyway upset with for their own reasons, is just the third bird to be killed with the same stone and some icing on the cake that Pawar wants to have and eat too.
Pawar was ever a great gambler. But will the Congress call his bluff?