Sharad Pawar paved the way for NCP joining hands with Congress in 1999, 2004 and again in 2019.
With his deft manoeuvres in Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar has perhaps justified the title of his autobiography released in 2016: On My Terms. This has been the first reverse suffered by the strategists of the Bharatiya Janata Party since Narendra Modi emerged as its national face in 2013 when the party’s Goa conclave declared him the candidate for Prime Minister. The Maharashtra watershed may reignite the effort for “Opposition Unity”—attempted time and again since the Indira Gandhi days in the early 1980s: these efforts began with a bang and ended in a whimper. In the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the swearing in of the Kumaraswamy government in Karnataka and the rally organised by Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata had seen impressive mobilisation of parties arrayed against the ruling party at the Centre, reminiscent of the anti-Indira Gandhi Opposition conclaves in the 1980s held at Hyderabad, Srinagar and Kolkata. The swearing in of Uddhav Thackeray in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park did not see a mass mobilisation of Opposition leaders, with Sonia Gandhi and her family and even Mamata Banerjee not making their presence felt, but it sent a strong signal on the invincibility of the BJP. (Opposition unity was attempted against Indira Gandhi in the 1960s and 1970s too—it succeeded in 1977, post Emergency, when Congress was ousted. Asked by a young Congress worker what went wrong, Mrs Gandhi had wryly commented, “In a democracy people do not like arrogance”. )
All is not lost for BJP in Maharashtra. Till 2014, when it emerged as the senior partner in the state’s alliance, it had been in the shadow of Shiv Sena. With the 30-year bond broken, sitting in the Opposition while three disparate parties run the second largest political state in the country, gives BJP the opportunity to consolidate its position in a state that sends 48 members to the Lok Sabha, second only to Uttar Pradesh’s 80. Having trusted Ajit Pawar to form the pre-dawn regime last weekend, Devendra Fadnavis has suffered a setback in his anti-graft plank. However, contradictions in a coalition of parties not bound by ideology and with a history of acrimony at the grassroots certainly throw up opportunity for an Opposition party—it remains to be seen how the BJP exploits the fissures.
Understanding between Shiv Sena and Congress (which included NCP elements then) dates back to the decade of the 1960s. Communists and Socialists dominated the trade union scene in Mumbai. Chief Minister V.P. Naik and Congress fund raiser and strategist, barrister Rajni Patel, envisaged a party which could whip up chauvinism and counter the class politics of the Left. Eminent cartoonist Bal Thackeray thus launched the Shiv Sena in 1966. Left slowly evaporated from the industrial scene, and the textile mills which dotted Parel and Worli started closing down. High rise condominiums and shopping malls now stand where mills and working class chawls stood three decades back. The change of land use for mill land was a result of policy decision of the Congress regimes in which Sharad Pawar had a dominant presence. In 1975, after a meeting between Indira Gandhi and Bal Thackeray, organised by Rajni Patel, Shiv Sena extended support to the Emergency. It was widely believed that the Congress victory in Maharashtra in the 1980 Lok Sabha elections was facilitated by Shiv Sena’s support.
Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party and Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, though perceived as rivals till the formation of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) earlier this week, had bonhomie too. In 2006, when Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule was put up by NCP for Rajya Sabha, Bal Thackeray, invoking his personal friendship with Pawar ensured that she was elected unanimously. A year later, in 2007, Pawar ensured Sena’s support for the Congress candidate for President of India, Pratibha Patil. In his autobiography, Pawar has referred to his warm personal relations with Bal Thackeray. Two days before her wedding, Supriya Sule, accompanied by her fiancé, had met Bal Thackeray to seek his blessings. A few days preceding the formation of MVA, newspapers carried photographs of Supriya with Aaditya Thackeray in the company of Shiv Sena strategist and Saamna editor Sanjay Raut. While accepting the leadership of MVA, Uddhav bowed to Pawar in the joint meeting of legislators.
MVA thus can rely on the past ties between NCP and Sena on one hand and the unobtrusive undercurrent relationship between Congress and Sena on the other. Thus far Sena was known for controlling the “remote” in Mumbai from Matoshree, the Thackeray residence. The role of Mother Hen of the MVA has been assumed by Sharad Pawar. If Uddhav Thackeray allows his father’s friend to be his guide and mentor, he may benefit from Pawar’s vast experience in governance and benefit from his deep knowledge of rural needs at a time when government statistics show that 12,021 farmers committed suicides in the period 2015-18 in Maharashtra.
Three projects initiated under the Fadnavis regime may come under a cloud. The new Metro link in Mumbai, which necessitated cutting of trees in the Aarey forest area had been opposed by Shiv Sena. The Ahmedabad-Mumbai High Speed Rail (HSR) link and the Samruddhi corridor, a highway linking Thane with Nagpur have seen opposition due to land acquisition. It remains to be seen how development oriented Sharad Pawar is able to guide the MVA on these three issues, especially the HSR project, which involves cooperation with Japan. In his nascent years as a junior minister in Maharashtra, Pawar had taken advantage of an international programme which saw him interning in the Prime Ministers’ offices in Japan, Denmark, Canada and on the US Capitol Hill in Robert Kennedy’s office—this background has provided him with rare insight on international relations.
Sharad Pawar began his politics at the grassroots and as a Congressman, though he belongs to a family of Leftists. He challenged Indira Gandhi and ultimately reconciled with Rajiv Gandhi. His falling apart with Sonia Gandhi in 1999 led to the formation of NCP. In his autobiography, Pawar does not mince words. He describes how “dissent was discussed in hushed tones” during the Emergency. He also records that as a minister he stayed away from the programmes attended by Sanjay Gandhi though the then Chief Minister was omnipresent. He had been a follower of Mohan Kumaramangalam, Chandra Shekhar, Mohan Dharia and was associated with the Socialist Forum and the Young Turks in the 1970s. When the party split in 1978, he chose to be in the party opposed to Indira Gandhi, then led by Swaran Singh (thus the name Congress-S as opposed to Congress-I). In 1978, he split the Congress-S as he was uncomfortable with its coalition government formed with Congress-I and with the help of Janata Party (which then included BJP) and Left groups like Peasants and Workers Party floated the Progressive Democratic Front (Pawar named his faction of the Congress-S as Samanantar Congress: Parallel Congress). Janata Party president, Chandrashekhar, who as a Young Turk in his Congress days had influenced Pawar, made Pawar the PDF Chief Minister in 1978. Pawar as Congress-S chief joined Chandrashekhar in his Kanyakumari to Delhi padyatra in 1984, which was a massive mobilisation against the Indira regime in a bid for Opposition unity. (Pawar walked with Chandrashekhar in the Agra-Delhi phase.)
When Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, she directly approached Pawar to return to the Congress fold. She wanted him to work with Sanjay Gandhi. On his refusal, the PDF government was dismissed. Pawar returned to Congress-S and in 1983 was elected its president at a session held in Kochi. This writer had the opportunity to interview him then: to a question why he could not work together with Rajiv Gandhi, then a Congress-I general secretary, Pawar replied, “I am in politics; he is a pilot”. In his autobiography he recalls that Indira Gandhi had asked him to work with Sanjay Gandhi and how he had politely avoided the issue. Rajiv Gandhi made overture to Pawar soon after he became PM in 1984. Indira Gandhi’s colleague, the late D.P. Dhar’s son Vijay Dhar, who was a confidant of Rajiv Gandhi, played a pivotal role in bringing Pawar and Rajiv together and Congress-S was merged into Congress-I at a rally in Aurangabad in December 1987, which was addressed jointly by the two leaders.
Pawar played a role in persuading Sonia Gandhi to take up the Congress mantle in 1998. He recalls in his book how he had accompanied Ghulam Nabi Azad and A.K. Antony to ask Sonia Gandhi to replace Sitaram Kesari. He was leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in Lok Sabha then. After Sonia Gandhi became the Congress president, the party amended its Constitution, as per the draft made by Pranab Mukherjee. Sonia Gandhi, though not a member of either House, was to be the leader of the Parliamentary party as well: she then nominated Pawar and Manmohan Singh as floor leaders in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, respectively. This did not go down well with Pawar. Later, in May 1999, in a move, which Pawar says was orchestrated by Arjun Singh, Sonia Gandhi asked her colleagues in the Congress Working Committee whether her being of foreign origin could be an issue in elections. P.A. Sangma, Tariq Anwar and Pawar replied in the affirmative while others did not—they were later expelled. NCP was born.
In her introduction to Pawar’s book, daughter Supriya writes, “He knows how to forgive and forget”. This trait of Pawar has paved the way for NCP joining hands with Congress in 1999, 2004 and again in 2019 and may well be the reason for Ajit Pawar not having to pay dearly for his short lived rebellion last week.