It took less than a week for the Maratha strongman, Sharad Pawar to demonstrate that he continues to be the most accomplished and perceptive political player amongst Opposition leaders, after he pulled the rug from beneath the feet of a few days’ old Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra, bringing his nephew, Ajit Pawar, back in the party fold.
In the process, Fadnavis perhaps, earned the dubious distinction of becoming the first Chief Minister of a state having to resign two times over in the same month. He had submitted his resignation to the Governor just before President’s Rule was declared, and had to repeat the act when he found himself outnumbered by legislators opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
The formation of the Aghadi government, comprising the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress, has re-established Pawar as the most qualified politician to pose any kind of challenge to the BJP supremacy in the country. In fact, it is most likely that Pawar would in Maharashtra occupy a position similar to the one held by Sonia Gandhi when the UPA government was in power at the Centre. In other words, he would be the friend, philosopher and guide of the new dispensation.
Significantly, the manner in which he succeeded in outwitting the well-oiled BJP machinery also makes him the fulcrum of any anti-BJP front that gets launched in the future. At one point of time in the past, no alternative to the BJP could be visualised without the Left parties playing a pivotal role. As time lapsed, Sonia Gandhi became the nucleus of the anti-communal forces, but lost the battle in 2014 to Narendra Modi, for careening her party towards the minorities. In the present context, it is definitely difficult to imagine any Opposition onslaught on the saffron brigade at the national level, which would not have Pawar as the key motivator. The wily Maratha may not necessarily immediately begin his battle with the BJP, but would choose his own pace and place.
The recent political trapeze in Maharashtra is a transfixing lesson for an avid political observer and onlooker. By his machinations cum stratagems, Pawar was able to expose each of the players, while at no time losing control of the situation. In public perception, the BJP presented a dismal picture after the very early morning swearing-in of its Chief Minister, an act that bewildered even party sympathisers. The message that went out was that the BJP was desperate to retain its hold over the government in India’s most affluent and second most politically significant state. The unanswered question is whether Pawar had a hand in sending nephew Ajit to the BJP camp so as to subsequently precipitate a crisis? There are various theories doing the rounds, but what transpired behind the scenes would be known only with the passage of some more time.
So far as the Shiv Sena was concerned, Pawar was able to convince Uddhav that it was time for him to take the lead if he had to rescue his party from the increasing influence of the BJP. The Shiv Sena had walked out of the alliance with the BJP since it was fearful that its core regional chauvinistic agenda was being blurred by the BJP’s overbearing Hindutva narrative, and if it did not take timely steps, the party could, in the next few years, be decimated.
When the Shiv Sena was founded by the late Balasaheb Thackeray in 1966-67, Pawar had just entered electoral politics under the guidance of his mentor, Y.B. Chavan. He was aware that the Sena had caught the Marathi imagination, because of its opposition to South Indians and Gujaratis, who were more influential than the Marathis in Bombay. The situation that had now arisen was that the Sena’s future was in the hands of two front ranking national leaders, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, both Gujaratis. Thus Pawar, while enticing Uddhav out of his shell into the coarse and ruthless reality of realpolitik, succeeded in directly getting him to enter the political arena.
The Congress never presented a threat since most of the MLAs elected on that party’s tickets owe their seats to Pawar who led the NCP-Congress alliance from the front. None of the leading Congress leaders, from either the Centre or the state, actively participated in the elections, thereby leaving the field free for Pawar. The situation that has arisen is that the Congress MLAs seem inclined towards accepting Pawar’s leadership, since ideologically inconsistent statements made by Rahul Gandhi and his supporters, while opposing an alliance with the Sena, did not work. The Congress had moved away from its ideological moorings a long time back when it had no qualms about admitting Sanjay Nirupam from the Sena and making him its Mumbai chief, while accommodating former CM Narayan Rane in its own fold. Therefore, the ideological debate assumed farcical proportions.
Pawar, who had to exit from the Congress following the controversy over remarks made regarding Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins, has once again obtained immense acceptability even in the rank and file of the grand old party. The Gandhis’ sway over the Congress has been on the decline, and this is also an appropriate opportunity for Pawar to position himself as a leader who has both the capacity and the experience to meet future challenges.
In addition, for the Maratha warlord—one of the few surviving political titans from the Indira Gandhi era—the current government formation must have provided him with immense self-satisfaction. Between us.