Why Sharad Pawar is dreaming again of being PM

The NCP chief has already managed to cobble up an informal alliance ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

 |  5-minute read |   09-02-2018
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There is a new spring in Sharad Pawar’s step ahead of the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections in 2019. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief has already managed to cobble up an informal alliance, and we saw a glimpse of that at the January 26 "Save the Constitution" march in Mumbai.

Even though the rally was organised by MP Raju Shetty and MLC Jitendra Awhad, Pawar was the one pulling the strings. He personally made calls to the main Opposition leaders, ensuring the presence of the likes of Sharad Yadav, Sitaram Yechury, Omar Abdullah, D Raja and so on.

More importantly, the senior state Congress leaders too were present at the rally. If there is any chance of an Opposition unity, Pawar knows it isn’t possible without the backing of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. He was in touch with them from the beginning. On top of that, he even tweeted saying that the next moves would be decided after consulting Rahul Gandhi. Later, the Opposition leaders held two more meetings, one at Sonia Gandhi’s residence, and the other at Pawar’s.

Known for his astuteness, Pawar’s strategy should be seen in the context of the dramatically changing political climate in India. According to an IndiaSpend analysis published recently, the BJP could be down to 217 in 2019 from its unprecedented 282 seats. In the last four years, 15 states have witnessed Assembly elections. Those 15 states had fetched the BJP 191 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. But considering the downward popularity of the BJP in those states, along with trends in Gujarat Assembly elections and Rajasthan by-polls, the ruling party looks set to lose considerable vote share in 2019.

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In such a scenario, the non-BJP and non-Congress parties can make a considerable difference. If the BJP is restricted at around 225, and the Congress at 125, the remaining 193 seats could be crucial, and that is where Pawar comes into play. He enjoys excellent rapport with parties across the board, irrespective of their ideologies. And with BJP’s current allies such as the Shiv Sena, the TDP and the Akali Dal upset with Modi, Pawar could easily exploit the situation. Moreover, more than 100 BJP’s MPs are Congress turncoats.

Smelling an opportunity, Pawar seems to have rekindled his dream of becoming the prime minister. He has been trying his luck since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, however, only in vain. In 1991, Pawar took on PV Narasimha Rao in the leadership race. I was witness to these happenings in New Delhi. Pawar’s Man Friday, Suresh Kalmadi, tried his best even as  his industrialist friends extended their full support. But Narasimha Rao was equally shrewd and knew the Congress party better than Pawar. He defeated Pawar, made him defence minister and sent him back to Maharashtra after the 1993 blasts. Since then Pawar’s close associates have tried their best to revive his dream during each Parliament election except the 2014 battle. The Modi wave had seemingly demolished Pawar’s dream even before the race began. Pawar admitted this publicly several times. But now in a changed political scenario, the NCP veteran has become active once again. Of course, if you ask him that, he would deny it immediately.

However, there are several impediments in the way of his PM dream.

The biggest of them is his own credibility crisis, not just in Maharashtra, but across the country. Even Opposition leaders around him concede the fact that he cannot be trusted. Not too long ago, his party unconditionally supported the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra from outside in 2014 and kept the minority BJP government afloat after the Assembly polls threw up a hung verdict. Also, his friendship with Modi is looked at with suspicion. And even though his relationship with Rahul Gandhi has improved in the recent past, to what extent will the Congress president repose his trust in Pawar is anybody’s guess.

Further, how would the big Opposition leaders with even bigger egos work with each other? The TMC is currently the third-largest party in Lok Sabha. Mamata Banerjee’s hold over West Bengal is comfortable. Even though she sent her representative to Mumbai for the rally, she later said it is just a formality. Why would Banerjee accept Pawar’s leadership, who doesn’t even have 15 MPs? Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav will also ask the same question.

Within a week of the Pawar-led march, Akhilesh Yadav conducted his own rally in Mumbai. Moreover, Akhilesh and Mayawati haven’t joined hands either. Even in Mumbai, Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh chief and Dalit stalwart Prakash Ambedkar is not ready to repose his trust in Pawar. On top of that, leaders from the southern states remain unpredictable as ever. The ego battles between regional parties are historic and the country has seen it closely in 1977, 1989 and 1996.

There is another possibility that cannot be neglected. If the BJP’s seats go down to a level where Modi cannot hold the allies together, Nitish Kumar within the NDA could emerge as a preferred candidate to lead the country. The late PA Sangma’s son and NPP chief Conrad Sangma, has recently said that in as many words.

(For the uninitiated, the National People's Party was formed by the veteran PA Sangma after he left the NCP, which he, along with Sharad Pawar and Tariq Anwar, founded in 1999 following their expulsion from the Congress for opposing Sonia Gandhi's leadership over her foreign origin. Pawar and Sangma later fell out after the NCP refused to back Sangma's candidature for President of India in 2012. An ally of the NDA, the NPP's influence is mostly concentrated in Meghalaya, which is going to Assembly polls on February 27.)

Notwithstanding the ever-changing equations, Pawar in all likelihood will continue to play an important role. But his dream of moving in to 7, Lok Kalyan Marg (the new nomenclature for 7, Race Course Road) is unlikely to be fulfilled.   

Also read: BJP juggernaut is losing steam, so what are Modi's chances of winning a second term?

Writer

Nikhil Wagle Nikhil Wagle @waglenikhil

The author is a senior journalist from Maharashtra.

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