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Battleground Maharashtra: Pawar play brings Congress closer, keeps BJP away

NCP chief Sharad Pawar has been meeting leaders from various parties in a bid to revive Opposition unity before the upcoming elections

mumbai Updated: Apr 11, 2018 08:26 IST
Shailesh Gaikwad
Shailesh Gaikwad
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Mumbai news,Sharad pawar
Sharad Pawar

Speaking at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) foundation day rally in Mumbai on April 6, party chief Amit Shah made it a point to target Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) supremo Sharad Pawar. He also made it known that Pawar’s efforts for Opposition unity were being watched closely by the ruling party. This marks a shift in the BJP’s approach towards Pawar. In the past three years, the party has been soft on him, especially after the 2014 Assembly elections, when the BJP fell short of majority by just 23 seats in the Assembly and NCP extended unconditional support to the former. Over the next few months, the bonhomie between Pawar and the BJP leaders was visible. Now, barely a year before the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP leaders are back to criticising Pawar. Was it a just remark in a political rally, or was Shah sending a signal that the BJP top brass is not happy with Pawar’s bid for revival of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that lost several members after the 2014 rout?

Congress and Pawar

Pawar’s politics has always been close to the Congress ideology, but the top brass in the party was always suspicious of him because of his prime ministerial ambitions. Still the love-hate relation between Congress and Pawar continues.

In his political career spanning over half a century, Pawar has quit the Congress twice, last time in 1999, when he floated the NCP along with PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar after raising the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. Then, it was assumed that things would change in Maharashtra and there would be political realignment on Pawar’s home turf. However, in less than a year, NCP got into an alliance with the Congress to form the government after a fractured mandate in the Assembly polls. Ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Pawar joined the Congress-led UPA and remained with it till the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when the UPA lost power. As an ally, NCP was never seen blackmailing Congress or creating problems till a series of scams broke out in Maharashtra and NCP leaders were in the dock. Most in the NCP were convinced that the whole thing was an outcome of then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan’s enmity with Pawar. Post-2014 Lok Sabha defeat of the UPA, Pawar wanted the Congress to replace Chavan with any other Congress leader as chief minister. As the Congress leadership refused to do so, Pawar’s party quit the alliance ahead of the Assembly elections that saw BJP emerging as the single largest party and forming the government. Pawar supported the government to “avoid political instability in Maharashtra”. The next two years saw PM Modi publicly revealing how Pawar was his political guru and the Maratha strongman was seen on a Pune street with a broom in his hand, symbolically supporting Modi’s Swachch Bharat campaign.

Now, barely a year to the elections, things seem to be changing. Pawar is a leading critic of the Modi government and trying to bring together Opposition parties to float a front with Congress as its anchor.

Suspicion about his motives

Notwithstanding the camaraderie on display, there are a significant number of Congress leaders, both in New Delhi and in Mumbai, who don’t trust Pawar. For them, his ultimate aim is to be in power. They say that Pawar is close to several BJP leaders, and as such, his effort to bring together opposition parties would ultimately lead to creation of a non-BJP, non-Congress third front, which would turn out to be a helping hand for the ruling party.

Maharashtra Congress leaders, too, say it is too early to assume that alliance with the NCP is final. “Not till we finalise the seat sharing agreement for Assembly and announce it in a press conference,” remarked a close aide of state Congress chief Ashok Chavan. “We also have a backup plan in place. If we suspect that the NCP is playing games with us, we will have to reciprocate. A few NCP legislators are ready to return to the Congress. Some former NCP leaders who went to the BJP ahead of Assembly polls are also keen to quit that party and come to us instead of going back to the NCP.”

However, senior NCP leaders defend the party’s moves and also point out that Pawar chose not to be a part of the BJP governments even when he had chance—whether it was in 1999 under then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee or in 2014 when Modi formed the government.

“Post-2014, he could have got ministerial berth for daughter Supriya Sule or any other NCP leader but he chose not to do so. If he is taking efforts for an opposition unity, he means it. He is not BJP’s Trojan horse in opposition camp,” insisted a senior NCP leader.

Political analysts feel Pawar’s efforts seem to be aimed at reviving the UPA. “It now appears that Pawar has decided to go with the Congress. He won’t go with the BJP. It is true that he was friendly with BJP for a couple of years, but that phase seems to be over,” said political analyst Pratap Asbe. “The way the political scenario is changing in the country, Pawar seems to be convinced that Congress needs to bounce back. In fact, he is playing a significant role for the unity of the Opposition in the lead of Congress.”

Situation on the ground

Pawar’s politics is based on his strength in Maharashtra, as his party has little presence outside the state. Although he shares cordial relations with Modi, there is no love lost between him and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who is more comfortable with Sena as an ally than the NCP, say NCP leaders. Over the past three years, Fadnavis has been shrewdly trying to cut the NCP to size, especially in the cooperative sector where it is strong. In western Maharashtra, majority of NCP leaders owe their influence to their base in cooperative sector. As such, the party can’t afford to lose its grip over it.

There is also a political compulsion behind the NCP’s move. The party shares the same voter base as that of Congress. The two parties contesting separately would mean NCP losing a significant chunk of seats and hence an alliance could be the way forward to wrest power from the BJP.

Little wonder, over the past year, NCP is making efforts to change the perception that it is closer to the BJP. For the past six months, the party has launched the ‘Halla Bol’ agitation against the BJP government. Pawar’s criticism of BJP and Modi has become sharper. He is not seen hobnobbing with BJP leaders now. In recent days, Congress president Rahul Gandhi met him at least twice at his Delhi residence. The background for a reunion is ready.

NCP leaders, however, insist that the party’s move is aimed at countering the BJP. “Reunion with Congress is a secondary issue. First, we are campaigning against the policies of Modi and Fadnavis. If Congress wants, we are open for an alliance with like-minded parties to defeat the BJP,” said senior NCP leader Jayant Patil. “We had not supported the BJP, but a stable government, since we did not want immediate elections. But, we are the only party that is constantly slamming the government whenever it is doing something wrong. It is clear from the BJP chief’s attack on us that they see us as enemy and not a friend.”

First Published: Apr 10, 2018 11:34 IST