Sharad Pawar opens the field wide to all players

The NCP chief may engineer a coalition of all the forces opposing the BJP and will be the bridge between the Congress

mumbai Updated: Feb 27, 2018 16:04 IST
Sujata Anandan
Sujata Anandan
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Sharad Pawar,Raj Thackeray
MNS chief Raj Thackarey and NCP chief Sharad Pawar shared the dais in Pune recently, where Thackeray interviewed Pawar. (HT FILE )

Leaders of two political parties diametrically opposed to each other ideologically, a generation apart, moreover. One celebrating 50 years in politics, the other just turning 50 this year. When they came together last week on stage before a huge gathering in Pune, there was a subtle shift in the political firmament that did not escape the notice of discerning observers. It was a memorable event the likes of which has not been witnessed before in any state of India.

Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar’s alma mater, Brihan Maharashtra College of Commerce, was witness to this bit of history on its grounds as Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) president Raj Thackeray, admittedly nervous as hell at the start of the event, nevertheless ended up interviewing Pawar in style, before a crowd of thousands gathered at its grounds. The questions he asked and the responses he elicited would do any television anchor proud. But apart from Raj’s exemplary journalism at the event, what has interested me most is the messages Sharad Pawar sent out to both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi and how those statements have thrown the field wide open for the next general elections that are barely a year away. I cannot help but admire Pawar for his master political craftsmanship. No one else could have pulled this off with such aplomb.

The NCP chief, of late, has been accused by many of his critics of undue flirtation with Modi. In the aftermath of demonetisation, Pawar’s condemnation of the act was not clear enough and damaged his equity with farmers. Modi’s visit to Baramati, Pawar’s home turf, where he proclaimed that the Maratha strongman had held his hand and walked him through the early years of his political life was more damaging. Now, Pawar was brushing off that claim to camaraderie, saying he could not have thrust (his) finger into Modi’s palm because he could never have been where Modi started his politics (read RSS shakhas).

But after publicly distancing himself from Modi, Pawar also drew himself closer to Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, which the NCP had kicked in the teeth during the 2014 assembly elections. He had publicly snubbed Gandhi at the closing campaign of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls by refusing to share the same space on the dais with the then Congress vice-president, who he clearly thought, was not up to his stature. But now he was describing Rahul as a great ‘learner’ and expressing hope that the Congress would go places in the near future. Both Modi and Gandhi must be completely zapped!

There was much more said at that interview, but just those two positions tell me a lot about the shifting winds and Pawar’s ability to sense the coming times. Obviously, he recognises the Congress is the only political party that can challenge the BJP at the next general elections and wants to make peace with Gandhi, who is now the leader of his party. Last month, Pawar brought together 18 political parties of different hues at a rally to ‘Save the Constitution’ and that was a precursor of things to come. I am sure Pawar will put together a coalition of all the forces opposing the BJP and will be the bridge between the Congress and those like the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) or All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), who cannot openly ally with the Indian National Congress (INC).

His open distancing of himself from Modi also indicates that he has sensed the BJP may not sweep the next elections as it did in 2014. Pawar’s larger constituency of the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar ethos demands that he keep as far away as possible from right-wing forces and there are many indicators that despite more than three years of BJP rule in the state, Maharashtra continues to maintain its socialist DNA. Pawar is tapping into that constituency early and his olive branch to Rahul Gandhi might well see the two parties coming together again.

But what I am wondering now is where does all this leave the MNS and the Shiv Sena, which have been seeking accommodation with the NCP. The MNS is clearly a spent force, but Raj Thackeray’s new camaraderie with Pawar could change the equation. There are indications that Uddhav Thackeray is suddenly jealous of Raj gaining mileage after interviewing Pawar — he managed overtly, with one single act, what Uddhav has been unable to pull off despite many covert meetings with the NCP chief.

Whatever the eventual outcome, Pawar has just opened the field to all players — not just in Maharashtra but across India. The 2019 elections just got very interesting indeed.

First Published: Feb 27, 2018 16:04 IST