Sharad Pawar leads Opposition charge against BJP-Sena in Maharashtra
Pawar, who will turn 79 in December, has been crisscrossing the state as he faces one of the toughest electoral battles of his political life. Many of his old party colleagues deserted him in the run-up to the elections.Updated: Oct 14, 2019 05:24 IST
Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar, 78, has emerged as the main opposition face spearheading the campaign against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Shiv Sena combine ahead of the October 21 Maharashtra assembly elections.
“Abhi to main jawan hoon [I am still young],” Pawar said at an election rally last week in response to his detractors, who have kept reminding him of his age. He added that he will rest only after the ruling alliance is voted out of power.
Pawar, who will turn 79 in December, has been crisscrossing the state as he faces one of the toughest electoral battles of his political life. Many of his old party colleagues deserted him in the run-up to the elections.
The ruling alliance, too, has focussed its attacks on Pawar, given his emergence as the main opposition face. Maharashtra BJP chief Chandrakant Patil on October 9 vowed to “permanently retire” Pawar from political and social life after the assembly elections. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an event in Nagpur last month and the BJP chief Amit Shah in his public meetings have attacked Pawar. “I can understand the confusion of the Congress. But Sharad Pawar? I feel bad when an experienced leader like him makes wrong statements for votes,” Modi had said. Shah, too, attacked Pawar, saying, “I want to ask Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and NCP chief Sharadraoji Pawar, Sharadraoji should tell the people of Maharashtra whether you are in favour of scrapping Article 370 or not?”
Political analyst Abhay Deshpande said that the BJP and Shiv Sena have been attacking Pawar since they know that he is the opposition’s face and leading the campaign of both NCP and Congress, which is completely demoralised and leaderless. “Therefore, they target him as per a well-crafted strategy,” he said.
Experts say that the Congress appears to have ceded space as the leading party in the alliance to NCP under Pawar’s leadership because of its shortcomings. The Congress seems to be playing second fiddle to the NCP for the first time since they joined hands in 1999. The Congress appears yet to recover from the shock of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Out of the 26 Lok Sabha seats it contested in alliance with the NCP in Maharashtra, the Congress managed to bag just one. The NCP won four of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats. Maharashtra Congress chief Balasaheb Thorat has had a difficult task of reviving the party and re-energising its cadres since his appointment came weeks before the assembly elections were announced.
Deshpande said that he would not be surprised if the NCP gets more seats than the Congress. “There is a possibility that the Congress might drop to the fourth position this time. The morale of its cadre is down and its candidate selection has not been that good and nobody is taking the lead... [The Congress is also facing a] huge cash crunch,” he said.
The Congress bagged 42 and the NCP 41 out of Maharashtra’s 288 assembly seats when they contested the last elections separately in 2014.
Prakash Pawar, who heads the political sciences department at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University, said that no doubt the NCP is aggressive in its campaigning but the voting patterns favour the Congress.
“It [Congress] has some pockets of influence among Dalits, tribals, minorities and also other backward classes (OBCs),” he said.
Congress spokesperson Anant Gadgil admitted that there has been a delay in decision-making and the appointment of the party’s state chief, which has demoralised the cadre and resulted in desertions.
Some of the Congress’s top leaders like Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil and Harshwardhan Patil have defected to the BJP over the last few months.
The NCP, too, appeared to be in total disarray as many of its old stalwarts joined either the BJP or the Shiv Sena a month ago. Prominent among them included former Lok Sabha member Udyanraje Bhosale, ex-deputy chief minister Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, legislators Shivendrasinh Bhosale, Sandip Naik, Dilip Gangadhar Sopal and Vaibhav Pichad.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED) last month filed a case against Pawar and his nephew, Ajit, under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act allegedly in connection with a Maharashtra state cooperative bank scam amounting to Rs 25,000 crore.
This prompted Pawar’s supporters to take to the streets in protest. The situation subsided only after police officers visited the NCP chief’s residence to persuade him against visiting the ED office in Mumbai. Pawar had announced he would visit the office on his own after the case was registered.
Pawar has since cited the case to attack the BJP and to accuse it of “misusing” the ED to target its political opponents. He received a rousing welcome, especially from the younger people, in Solapur, Osmanabad, and Beed as he stepped up his poll campaign. “He [Pawar] has managed to build bridges with the youths. This election, the youths are with Pawar. This is a new development,” political analyst Prakash Pawar said.
Gadgil said the ED case has helped mobilise the NCP cadres and boosted Pawar’s campaign.
Experts say Pawar’s “political vendetta” narrative has enabled him to gain sympathy in his traditional bastion of western Maharashtra, where the NCP has been losing ground since 2014. The region has 66 assembly and 11 Lok Sabha seats. In the 2019 general elections, the BJP-Shiv Sena won eight and the NCP the remaining three Lok Sabha seats in the region.