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The general election of 1989 were historic. Riding on the wave of Bofors scandal and the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, VP Singh reduced the number of seats the Congress had in Lok Sabha to 197 as opposed to 404 seats in 1984 elections.
However, the Janta Dal led by VP Singh was also unable to garner sufficient seats to stake a claim to government as they won only 143 seats. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had won 85 seats, were hoping that if they support the Janta Dal, VP Singh will award Cabinet positions to some of the saffron party’s leaders.
But, the Left parties dashed their hopes. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the then general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) suggested that the Janta Dal form the government and both the BJP and the coalition of Left parties provide the government an outside support. And ultimately, the government was formed as per his suggestion.
Comrade Harkishan Singh Surjeet – arguably the most pragmatic, liberal and flexible politician of Indian politics. He joined forces with ideological opponents BJP to support the VP Singh government in 1989, he was instrumental in stitching the United Front alliance in 1996 and 1997 and finally, in 2004, he helped the Congress-led UPA reach the halfway mark of 272 seats in Lok Sabha.
In the ’90s, when new political parties with their own agendas were formed every other day, Surjeet was the glue that held the band together.
Fast forward to 2018, the Lok Sabha elections are a little over an year away and calls of a ‘Mahagathbandhan’ against the BJP have started to make rounds. Sonia Gandhi invited Opposition leaders to a dinner and ideological opponents Sharad Pawar and Raj Thackeray held a meeting of their own.
Regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee and K Chandrashekhar Rao are also extending support. Once bitter political rivals, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav have taken it to another level by burying the hatchet and contesting polls together.
So, the divided Opposition is now uniting but who will be the glue, who, like Surjeet, will hold the band together? Sharad Yadav, Lalu Yadav, Chandrababu Naidu, Sonia Gandhi or Sharad Pawar?
My pick is Sharad Pawar.
It won’t be wrong to say that Sharad Pawar is the biggest power-broker of modern-era Indian politics. He quit the Congress in 1999 to form his own Nationalist Congress Party, but in 2004, he wasn’t just part of the Congress-led UPA coalition, but played a key role over the next 10 years.
It’s often said that “Pawar sides with power” but, if Opposition has to truly unite against the BJP, his involvement will be critical. To understand the influence of Sharad Pawar among Opposition parties, look at this picture.
The picture was taken during the launch of Pawar’s autobiography. Leaders from the Congress, the Left and the JD(U) were present on this occasion.
Pawar is a seasoned politician. He had announced in 2012 that he will no longer contest an election, which means that he wants to enjoy the role of a kingmaker. He is best suited to stitch a united Opposition like comrade Surjeet.
Pawar was present at Sonia Gandhi’s residence when the UPA chairperson invited the Opposition leaders to her residence for a dinner party. After the party, he met Congress President Rahul Gandhi and analysed the probability of an anti-BJP ‘Mahagathbandhan’. From a political point of view, this meeting is significant.
He is in contact with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray as well. In his autobiography On My Own Terms, Sharad Pawar had written:
In order to remove the BJP, there is no other way than to bring together the Congress and all the other small parties. But for that, the Congress will have to make sure that a prospective alliance with the supporting parties is made to function the same way as Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA did.
It may not be a long shot to assume that Sharad Pawar will be the leader at the core of a united Opposition.
(The story was originally published on Quint Hindi and has been translated by Anubhav Mishra)