The secret of Sharad Pawar’s success, writes Rajdeep Sardesai
The original coalition era politician, his capacity to cut through divides has sustained his powerUpdated: Dec 09, 2019 14:06 IST
There are few Indian politicians as inscrutable as Sharad Pawar. The old political saying in Mumbai is “what Pawar thinks, what he says, and what he does are three entirely different things”. The saying might explain why no one is still quite sure what was Pawar’s exact role in the high drama in Maharashtra last month. Was the Nationalist Congress party (NCP) leader really not aware of the negotiations that his nephew Ajit Pawar was having with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? Or was he playing both sides of Maharashtra’s high stakes poker politics to find out who would give him the best deal? The full truth may never be revealed, but what is clear is that, as he reaches 80, Pawar has proven to be the real shatranj ka khiladi (chess player) in Maharashtra’s complicated chess game.
Ironically, just a few months ago, Pawar was being almost completely written off. His party was imploding — more than a dozen leaders and an NCP Member of Parliament switched sides ahead of the elections — and even his family seemed to be splitting apart. He was named in an enforcement directorate First Information Report (FIR), a move that in hindsight may have been Devendra Fadnavis’s biggest mistake. It virtually signalled an open war between an ageing regional satrap and the rising star of Maharashtra politics.
The truth is that Pawar has never been the kind of statewide mass leader that the national media projects him as. His primary base has been confined to his western Maharashtra citadel, where he exercised control over his agrarian Maratha caste base. But he has never, for example, led the Congress, or indeed, the NCP to a majority win in Maharashtra, often relying on break-ups and post-poll deals to cement his position in the state. Nor has he been able to expand his influence beyond Maharashtra. His repeated attempts to become prime minister have been foiled in the Byzantine power corridors of the Delhi durbar. What Pawar has been, though, is a tireless, resourceful leader, and an astute political negotiator, living by the adage of “no permanent friends or enemies in politics, but permanent interests”. This has enabled him to build a wide network of friends and allies across party lines. When he turned 75 in 2015, the entire political class, from Narendra Modi to Sonia Gandhi, were in attendance — the same Sonia Gandhi whose foreign origins had led Pawar to leave the Congress in 1999, but with whom he unhesitatingly forged an alliance in Maharashtra and at the Centre.
It is this capacity to cut through personal and ideological divides that have sustained “Pawar power” over the years. He was, in a sense, the original coalition-era politician. His Progressive Democratic Front-led government in Maharashtra in 1978 brought together the then Jan Sangh and socialists under one umbrella. And while the Shiv Sena was ostensibly a political opponent, Pawar never targeted Sena supremo Bal Thackeray beyond a point. Whether out of mutual respect or mutual convenience, the Pawar-Thackeray equation is proof of the politics of conciliation that has marked Maharashtra’s landscape. Unlike a West Bengal or a Tamil Nadu, where fierce individual battles are waged and political adversaries vilified and even jailed, Maharashtra’s politics is built around quid pro quo deal-making.
To some extent, the Fadnavis-Amit Shah-Modi brand of “take-no-prisoners”, highly competitive politics disrupted Maharashtra’s relatively stable ecosystem. With corruption charges and FIRs being filed against political rivals, a sudden fear factor crept into the political class. Those who joined the BJP were assured of “protection”, while those who did not were targeted by the enforcement authorities. An insecure, even hostile environment was created where the BJP’s longstanding ally, the Shiv Sena, was convinced that their ruling coalition was out to finish them. As was the Congress, shaken by Shah’s boast of a “Congress-mukt Bharat”.
It is this “fear factor” that Pawar has successfully been able to exploit, while stitching together what seemed like an utterly fantasy project when the election results were announced. It isn’t anti-Modiism as much as a “fear” of the Modi-Shah-Fadnavis triumvirate that has brought together political parties, which have little in common, apart from the need for sheer survival. Whether the Maharashtra alliance lasts is uncertain, but what is clear is that regional parties find the idea of a dominant BJP a scary prospect. While the prime minister talks of “co-operative federalism” , the truth is that the BJP has made every effort to downsize regional forces, leading to fractured relationships. It happened to the Telugu Desam Party in Modi-1, it’s now happened with the Sena in Modi-2.
The BJP’s big two may be seen as a political Chanakyas but “Chanakya-neeti” cannot be built around threats and intimidation of smaller parties. It needs deft handling of bruised egos and a bit of give-and-take, rather than bullying people into submission. The spectre of a “dossier raj”, where State power is used to crush political opponents, breeds suspicion and enmity. Which is where Shah-Modi could perhaps take a leaf out of the Pawar playbook. Realpolitik is not just about the stick, it is often about the carrot too.
Post-script: On the campaign trail in Maharashtra, I asked Pawar whether he had ever contemplated retirement. His response was a dismissive: “Abhi to main jawan hoon (I am young right now)!” Moral of the story: The eternal elixir of youth in politics is the scent of power.