Grand Master of political chess has propelled the NCP into relevance once again.

 

The rule is simple, when in a position of relative weakness, make a move that will keep your opponents guessing. By the time they gather their wits and arrive at a conclusion, you move a few steps forward. A mind game? Or a game of chess? Call it what you like.

On My Own Terms by
Sharad Pawar

 

New Delhi: What better way to decode the enigmatic Sharad Pawar than his own words, penned in his slightly premature autobiography in 2015 to celebrate his 75th birthday. Premature, because clearly the last chapter has still not been written and there’s a message here for all those who tried to write off the Maratha (still going) strongman, before he’s ready to hang up his political boots.

Probably this is a mistake made by Ajit Pawar as well. Well, he certainly misread the signs if he thought he could do an Akhilesh Yadav and whisk his uncle’s party from right under his nose. If there was one enduring image during the recent Maharashtra election campaign, it was Sharad Pawar standing drenched in the rain, addressing a crowd that had waited for him despite the downpour. This was one grassroots leader who knew all too well that “connect” is not a hashtag on Twitter that happens from the comforts of an air-conditioned drawing-room. This was also not a leader who had penned his last chapter.

True, Pawar had initially flirted with the BJP and even offered it support when the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly had thrown up a hung house. But, as he explains in his autobiography, “Sensing an opportunity to drive a wedge between the saffron partners, I offered unconditional support to the BJP”. He goes on to add, “the psychological rift still persists between the two allies and this is what I was aiming at”. Did he then sow the seeds of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (the alliance between the Sena, NCP and Congress) way back in 2014 itself?

The Grand Master of political chess has achieved two goals with this move. One, he has propelled the NCP into relevance once again. And two, he has weakened his nephew Ajit Pawar’s hold over the party, thus paving the way for his daughter Supriya Sule, who is clearly his political heir of choice. The recent crisis certainly saw the emergence of Supriya Sule in the limelight. Note, that it was not Praful Patel or any other NCP leader who was at Senior Pawar’s side doing damage control, reaching out to her rebel cousin, giving sound bites and WhatsApp status updates. And when the crisis was resolved, we knew all was well because there was Supriya hugging Aditya Thackeray in one television frame, reaching out to her estranged cousin Ajit Pawar in another, greeting Devendra Fadavis in a third. In fact, one reason why Pawar did not align with the BJP could be that Supriya has always been very vocal in her opposition to the BJP taking on the party on such issues such as the triple talaq bill. With the Maharashtra Congress in its current leaderless and rudderless state, Pawar may have realised there is more growth potential for his daughter in aligning with the Congress than the BJP.

There is also a great deal of “growth” potential for Sharad Pawar in aligning with the anti BJP camp. Don’t forget there is that unstated dream of being the first Maratha to rule over Delhi. If his health permits, then Pawar could easily become the fulcrum uniting Mamata Banerjee, Akhilesh Yadav, Lalu Yadav, Stalin, Jagan Reddy, even NDA allies like Nitish Kumar and the Badals. Within the Congress too, there are probably more takers for Pawar than the Gandhis, given the current leadership limbo.

As for the Sena, both Pawar and Supriya enjoy an easy rapport with the Thackerays. So easy that it didn’t take long for the fake news brigade on social media to circulate a WhatsApp claiming that Supriya’s husband Sadanand was actually Bal Thackeray’s sister’s son. While that is not the case, Sadanand’s father (a former executive at Mahindra & Mahindra) and Bal Thackeray were friends. This is mentioned in Pawar’s autobiography, as is his own rapport with Balasaheb, who would often refer to Pawar as “maidyaacha pota” (a sack of flour) “to make fun of my heavy girth”. And when Supriya contested her first Rajya Sabha, Bal Thackeray assured Pawar that the Sena would not contest against her and neither would “kamlabai” (Reference being to BJP’s lotus symbol).

Which makes one wonder, how did Pawar handle “kamlabai”? For there was that meeting between Prime Minister Modi and Sharad Pawar ten days ago, ostensibly to discuss drought but surely the Maharashtra government crisis must have come up. Soon after, Modi praised Pawar in Parliament. Did Pawar give the BJP any assurances? Both Modi and Amit Shah are too shrewd to have simply taken Ajit Pawar at face value. His word has to have been backed by someone with more heft. Then again, Senior Pawar is too sharp to have misled Modi and Shah outright.

A more reasonable explanation is that he “tacitly misled” Ajit Pawar to go on a suicidal mission only to pull the rug from under him. BJP strategists claim that the party was hoping to push the government through via a secret ballot and a voice vote. If it hadn’t been for Sharad Pawar (and the Supreme Court) then his nephew may just have pulled off this audacious gambit. The Congress was clueless; the Sena friendless. It was left to Senior Pawar to provide the numbers and the gumption.

As a footnote, one can only quote what Pawar told his doctor who warned him that he had only six months left to live when diagnosed with cancer. “Take it from me, I am going to outlive you”, was Pawar’s reply. And he writes: “The doctor spoke his truth. I, mine.” To know how to make your version of truth come true—therein lies the secret of winning floor-tests.

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