How Sharad Pawar ‘Scripted’ Anti-BJP Game & Held ‘Remote Control’

Contrary to what Fadnavis had stated, the Pawar era in Maharashtra politics is indeed, far from being over.

6 min read
Image of Sharad Pawar used for representational purposes.

In two weeks from today, on 12 December, Sharad Pawar would step into his 80th year. He would do so with the contentment of an old warrior who proved his mettle in his chosen arena yet again.

In the last six weeks, the man who has spent six decades in politics but was taunted by BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis that his “era was over”, scripted and directed Maharashtra’s political show that left many agape – BJP’s oldest ally, Shiv Sena, broke the bond after contesting the assembly election together, ideological opponents Congress and Sena made common cause, his own Nationalist Congress Party emerged stronger and his position more compelling than ever, and BJP’s power-at-any-cost principle stood discounted.

Maharashtra can be said to have check-mated the BJP juggernaut, with Pawar at the helm. Modi and Shah may have met their match.

Pawar Showed How It’s Possible to take On ‘Chanakyas’

When Uddhav Thackeray takes oath as chief minister – as agreed between the Sena, Congress, and NCP – and leads a coalition government that was nowhere on the horizon on 24 October when election results trickled in, beating back all power-grabbing strategies used by the BJP in other states, Pawar would have shown the country that it is, indeed, possible to take on and overwhelm so-called ‘Chanakyas’ and their own political machinery.

Maharashtra can be said to have check-mated the BJP juggernaut, with Pawar at the helm. Narendra Modi and Amit Shah may have met their match.

Pawar is given to few words and laconic expressions. Even so, his short speech to the joint assembly of legislators of Sena, Congress and NCP – called the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) – at a Mumbai five-star hotel on Sunday night, was received with thunderous cheers, and offered an insight into the passion he had poured into his latest assignment. Referring to the BJP forming governments in states without having the numbers, he said, “This is not Goa or Karnataka. This is Maharashtra. If something wrong is being done here, we can teach people a lesson”.

When All Seemed Lost for Sharad Pawar

Three-four months of intense planning, back-breaking travel across Maharashtra, natural setbacks like unseasonal rain, and engineered ones like a large group of his party leaders deserting him on the eve of the state assembly election, the experience of being a veteran strategist and mass leader, all went into Sharad Pawar’s game plan.

His equation of many years with Sena MP Sanjay Raut – who became the conduit to Uddhav Thackeray – and his personal rapport with Congress leaders like Ahmed Patel and Mallikarjun Kharge, stood Pawar in good stead through the last month. Congress President Sonia Gandhi may not trust him, but she was presumably convinced by his anti-BJPism, and her party, with only 44 MLAs, glimpsed power.

Fadnavis may not accept it in public, but Pawar-era politics had prevailed. And Ajit Pawar was indirectly off the hook in some of the ‘irrigation scam’ cases.

When nephew Ajit Pawar rebelled ostensibly with NCP’s 54 MLAs to help Fadnavis set up a government on 23 November in a stealth pre-dawn move – facilitated by Governor BS Koshyari – and Prime Minister Modi, used his Emergency powers, and President Ram Nath Kovind signed the revocation of President’s Rule imposed on 12 November 12 – it seemed that Pawar had lost the decider set of an arduous match.


How Sharad Pawar-Era Politics Prevailed

The Sena and Congress were finally on board, but his nephew had played spoilsport. With tenacity, he regrouped his MLAs and isolated Ajit Pawar; he prevailed upon Sena and Congress leaders to keep their MLAs together at all cost. The Supreme Court gave him an advantage in the decisive last game of the decider set. On a petition filed by the three parties, the SC ordered that Fadnavis-Ajit Pawar demonstrate their majority in the Assembly by Wednesday evening, with a pro-temp Speaker, and the proceedings video-graphed left little room for manoeuvre for what was largely seen as an illegitimate government.

Ajit Pawar resigned within hours of the Supreme Court order; Fadnavis soon after. “We believed Ajit Pawar had the numbers to add to our 105, and that’s why we formed the government, but he cited “personal reasons” to withdraw,” Fadnavis explained. But alliances are usually not formed behind the scenes, without a party’s top leadership on board and several rounds of meetings, and oath of office is not taken in a surreptitious manner without even informing party MLAs and the media. Fadnavis may not accept it in public, but Pawar-era politics had prevailed. And Ajit Pawar was indirectly off the hook in some of the ‘irrigation scam’ cases.

Pawar’s equation of many years with Sena MP Sanjay Raut, and his personal rapport with Congress leaders like Ahmed Patel and Mallikarjun Kharge, stood him in good stead.

This is not to say that Sharad Pawar is a saint; far from it. There are issues and decisions on which he has emerged on the wrong or amoral side; he suffers from a trust deficit to an extent that even his close confidantes briefly wondered if Ajit Pawar’s rebellion was part of his ‘hidden plan’ to share power with Modi in Delhi; he presided over India’s agriculture ministry for a decade in which agrarian crisis and farmers’ suicides accelerated; his ambition and haste made him break with the Congress not once, but twice.

Why Did Pawar Take the BJP On With All Cylinders Roaring?

Many do not recall that Pawar had offered unconditional support to the BJP in Maharashtra exactly five years ago when the latter did not have majority in the 288-member Assembly. Many also forget his ‘bromance’ with Prime Minister Modi in Baramati during the latter’s first term, and the handful of occasions on which Modi has had good words for him. In his career, he has allied with earlier avatars of the BJP to gain power, though in his personal life, he remains a secular and progressive man. So why did Pawar take the BJP on with all cylinders roaring?

One, this turned into a personal battle for Pawar when Fadnavis, presumably with the acquiescence of Modi and Amit Shah, called into question his career and political legacy with the “Pawar era is over” taunt, and later, by dragging his name into an Enforcement Directorate case about corruption in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank this September. Pawar does not forget slights of any kind nor does he forgive easily.

Did Fadnavis become the ‘fall guy’ for his bosses in the bizarre experiment at grabbing power?

Two, his party, like the Shiv Sena, is fighting an existential battle in Maharashtra with a ‘predatory’ BJP, and he must have believed that this is his last chance to re-assert its presence and breathe new life into it. This is why his alliance with Sena – and Uddhav Thackeray with whom he did not share great chemistry until recently – came about easier than getting the confused and reluctant Congress to join them. The Congress has other states to fight in; the NCP and Sena must do what they can only in Maharashtra.


How Fadnavis Became the ‘Fall Guy’

On Tuesday, Fadnavis set several records – for being Maharashtra’s chief minister for the shortest span of less than 80 hours, resigning as chief minister twice in a month, taking oath in a closed-door secret ceremony – and resigning in the public glare. Till that stealth move, Fadnavis was the brightest star on Maharashtra’s political horizon with the qualities that promised to take him far; in fact, he was even compared to Modi. His assertion earlier this month, that the BJP did not have the numbers and that’s why would not stake claim to form the government, had earned him respect.

After the weekend shenanigans, he has lost a fair bit of his goodwill and political currency. Did he become the ‘fall guy’ for his bosses in the bizarre experiment at grabbing power? Or did he become a pawn in Pawar’s game? Perhaps, both.

In a turn-around of roles, Pawar will now be the ‘remote control’ over the new Maharashtra government.

In the process, the Maha Vikas Aghadi, which was all set to stake claim on 22 November evening, hours before Fadnavis-Ajit Pawar’s skulduggery, has gained a wee bit. This unnatural alliance had spent 10-12 days forming its contours, working out a Common Minimum Programme, sharing the offices of power, and more. But it did not exude confidence and show determination The weekend drama lent it the solidity of purpose, and imbued it with an ethical halo of being denied power by BJP.

Will Pawar Now be the ‘Remote Control’ For New Maharashtra Govt?

The road ahead is hardly smooth for this alliance. The worldview and ideologies of the three parties are different, the internal contradictions in the alliance are many, its second-rung leaders will nurse egos and ambitions beyond what the alliance offers them, and tug-of-war over power-sharing could keep it unstable. Here’s where two factors will be decisive – one, the Common Minimum Programme and two, Pawar’s role.

In a turn-around of roles, Pawar will now be the ‘remote control’ over the new Maharashtra government – one that his ‘frenemy’, the late Bal Thackeray, played to a Sena-BJP government in the 1990s. The Pawar era in Maharashtra is, indeed, far from over.

(Smruti Koppikar is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, editor and chronicler. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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