Raghav’s Take: ‘Catalyst Kingmaker’ Pawar’s Tough Bid to Beat Modi
The Quint’s Editor-in-Chief Raghav Bahl analyses Sharad Pawar’s bid to forge an Opposition unity, to defeat the BJP.
Two politically significant leaders, Sharad Pawar and Yashwant Sinha, began the arduous “seeding” of a joint Opposition front against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024. Was it a successful start?
‘Catalyst Kingmaker’ Pawar Has Arrived, But Must Up His Game Now
Mathematically, it was a modest show. Only Trinamool and NCP carry political heft today. Samajwadi Party, although decimated in the last polls in Uttar Pradesh, is showing signs of revival. AAP and National Conference bring low single digits to the table.
The others, from RLD to the Left Parties, are ciphers. The Congress stayed customarily aloof, even though Kamal Nath met Pawar later in the evening (both are old warhorses, seasoned, accessible, and practical politicians). So, mathematically, there wasn’t much joy.
Politically, it signalled the arrival of Pawar as the “catalyst kingmaker,” a sort of “born again Harkishan Singh Surjeet” (for unaware millennials, Surjeet was a savvy political networker who brought over a dozen regional parties together in 1996 to create the United Front government under a maverick Deve Gowda). Now that is significant. Pawar displayed his legendary skills in cementing the most unlikely coalition under Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra.
So, he’s got the creds, but will have to up his game exponentially to take on Modi.
Three Huge Challenges Before Pawar
Pawar faces three huge challenges as he tries to cobble a credible, united Opposition for 2024:
First, despite the tragic second wave of the pandemic, Modi stays head and shoulders above any rival.
Second, Pawar will have to coax a political loner like Rahul Gandhi to pad up for the team, but the prospects of that happening are uncertain. Gandhi believes he can revive the Congress nationally, but Pawar will have to convince him to first win the semi-finals before fancying Congress’ chances in the finals. For that, Gandhi will have to agree to fight in only about 250 parliamentary constituencies in which the Congress has a political footprint, leaving nearly 300 seats for powerful regional allies. That’s a daunting ask, even for the consummate Pawar.
Third, Pawar will have to convince regional heavyweights to face the reality, ie, while they dominate their states, their national acceptance is non-existent.
An AI-powered survey this week reveals how regional titans are completely circumscribed within the boundaries of their states, ie, they are virtual pygmies on the national stage.
Dominance of Regional Parties & Their Confines
It’s a curious reality of Indian politics, how the dominance of a regional party is tightly confined to the state in which its supreme leader is domiciled. And when borders change, the area of confinement changes too.
Look at the way in which TDP became irrelevant in Telangana, although it had a robust presence there before Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated. Or how Lalu Yadav was virtually erased from Jharkhand the minute it was carved out of Bihar. Why, even the mighty Pawar got trapped in Maharashtra after leaving the Congress, where he was a prime ministerial aspirant.
So, Pawar will have to drill this uncomfortable truth into Mamata Banerjee, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Tejashwi Yadav, MK Stalin, Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Mohan Reddy, KCR and all other regional titans, asking them to “please shed your national ambitions, accept that Rahul Gandhi and Congress shall be the first among equals, and play key supporting roles.”
Even for Pawar, getting Gandhi to contest only 250 seats while leaving 300 for regional allies, AND convincing regional tigers to accept Gandhi’s leadership – that may be a bit too much to ask!
So, watch this space, but keep expectations in check.
UP Polls: Will Pawar Be Able to Convince Gandhis to ‘Stoop Now But Conquer Later’?
The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections early next year provide Pawar and Sinha their first crucial laboratory to figure out how to get fractious, unrealistically ambitious political opponents to coalesce behind a possible winner.
While Yogi Adityanath and the BJP are entrenched, Akhilesh Yadav and SP are stirring into some life, as the panchayat polls have thrown up early markers. With Mayawati withdrawing into the shadows, and BSP haemorrhaging talent, Yadav is emerging as the principal Opposition leader.
But Congress is unwilling to give up in UP, even though it’s so deep in the ditch that the only way to climb out would be to take tiny steps over several years, rather than continue to fail with single cartwheels.
It’s imperative that Pawar convinces the Congress to slip into a supporting role for this battle, a bit like it has done with DMK in Tamil Nadu. And yes, I do remember that the SP-Congress alliance had crashed in 2017, but then, every electoral battle has its own chemistry.
In the upcoming one, the Congress, with its history of “umbrella politics,” could help SP pick up disenchanted supporters of BSP and BJP.
Will Pawar be able to convince the Gandhis to “stoop now but conquer later”? If he succeeds, he will build the template for 2024. If he fails, well, it would have been good net practice!
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