Sharad Pawar: What Went Wrong for this Congress Stalwart?

Today, Pawar stands defied by party workers, challenged by youngsters in his family; NCP now a sub-regional party. 

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

Sharad Pawar, chief of the Nationalist Congress Party and a politician with more than 50 years of experience, faced a piquant situation at a party workers’ meeting in Phaltan, in Satara district of Maharashtra, three weeks ago. When local leader Kavita Mhetre took the mic, her rival within the party, Shekhar Gore, began sloganeering against her and gestured to his supporters in the audience to raise the tempo. Her supporters took them on. Within minutes, it was a free-for-all.

Pawar took hold of the mic and demanded that the ruckus be stopped forthwith. No one paid heed. The commotion continued even as he was speaking. Annoyed and disgusted, he walked out.

The Phaltan assembly segment is part of Madha Lok Sabha constituency, which Pawar represented from 2009 to 2014. NCP’s Vijaysinh Mohite Patil represented it in the last Lok Sabha.

Pawar, “Saheb” to his party workers, whose word was always the final say, must have felt the ground shift beneath his feet. This would have been unthinkable for one often hailed as “the Maratha strongman”.


Pawar’s Tryst With Power

On 11 March, Pawar declared that he would not contest from Madha. He has been saying this since he became a Rajya Sabha member nearly four years ago. With 14 Lok Sabha and assembly election victories, some with record margins over his rivals, he had had enough. But he changed his mind in February this year, and was agreeable to contesting, perhaps in the hope that a Lok Sabha seat would better his chances in New Delhi. This week, he took himself out of the LS race again. This was not vintage Pawar.

Twenty years ago, on a rainy June morning in Mumbai, when Pawar set up the NCP with his loyalists from the Congress, he looked set to dominate national politics. His ambition was to become the Prime Minister of India. The 1990s offered him opportunities. He came close, twice. 

He had thrown his hat in the ring in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991, but PV Narasimha Rao had better support. In the political turbulence and coalition governments of the 90s, Pawar alternately maneuvered and bid his time. By 1998, the Congress was in disarray. Pawar sought to side-line the then party president Sitaram Kesri and aim for his dream job. But loyalists had by then prevailed upon Sonia Gandhi to take over the reins.

It infuriated Pawar that he would have to “bend in front of another Gandhi”, a dynast without political experience. He challenged her tentative leadership of the party with a coordinated revolt in the Congress Working Committee in April 1999, using her Italian origins as the basis. An ugly battle followed; he was expelled.

Congress’s Maharashtra Bossman

When he set up the NCP, he was a national leader with a strong regional base. The NCP offered hope, non-dynastic, neo-liberal, secular politics. In Delhi, the fledgling party enjoyed support. It had not one but three faces – the late PA Sangma, former Lok Sabha Speaker; Tariq Anwar from the politically critical Bihar; and Praful Patel, the affable man with deep pockets, and an enviable network.

Pawar had been the bossman of the Congress in Maharashtra, sworn in four times as chief minister. His exit, along with a few high-profile state leaders, had bruised the party. In October 1999, the Congress predictably fell short of majority in the Maharashtra Assembly. Pawar got to be the kingmaker. 

Vajpayee and Advani had reportedly promised him a hefty assignment in Delhi in return for backing a BJP government in the state. Pawar chose his bete noire, the Congress.

The Congress-NCP governed Maharashtra for three successive terms till 2014. By then, Pawar had allied at the national level with the Congress, held the agriculture and food ministry in Dr Manmohan Singh’s cabinets (the years also saw worsening of farmers’ suicides and agrarian distress). He had been Defence Minister in Narasimha Rao’s government, leader of Opposition in LS, and had friends across the political spectrum, from J Jayalalitha to Farooq Abdullah and Harkishan Singh Surjeet (CPM).


What Went Wrong for Sharad Pawar?

Pawar’s clout and stature in Delhi far exceeded the handful of his party MPs in the Parliament. His appeal rested on three factors – he was a self-made politician, his clout independent of a family or party; he had a good grasp of law and administration; and he had remained largely secular in the rising tide of Hindutva. These qualities should have given him a pan-India profile.

Yet, here he stands in 2019 defied by his party workers, challenged by youngsters in his family, the NCP reduced to a sub-regional party. So, what went wrong?

At the macro political level, there has been a general decline in the appeal of political parties with centrist and liberal or progressive leanings. This includes the Congress and smaller parties such as the NCP. Their consensus-based, secular political philosophy seems at variance with “New India”. Pawar’s consolation is that, instead of being third or fifth in command to Sonia Gandhi (and Rahul, who’s younger than his daughter), he became numero uno of a smaller party, negotiating with her as an equal. In 2014, the NCP had won four LS seats, while the Congress could only manage two.

NCP Was Unable to Expand Its Footprint

In Maharashtra, the NCP didn’t become the dominant player as Pawar had hoped, but one of the four. Its vote share hovered around 16-20 percent in the elections, at par with the Congress or Shiv Sena, although ahead of the BJP. Only in the 2014 elections did the BJP out-strip others with 28 percent and 27 percent in the Lok Sabha and state elections respectively.

The NCP was unable to expand its footprint beyond its bastion of the sugar belt in western Maharashtra. Forget other states where it does not even have a presence; it does not enjoy clout in Vidarbha and Konkan within the state. Eventually, Sangma and Anwar drifted away.

In the post-liberalisation politics of the last 15 years, the traditional power structures in rural Maharashtra – the cooperative sugar factories, credit societies, district banks, agricultural produce market societies and so on – which sustained the Congress and the NCP – have not held as much sway as they used to. The post-liberalisation economy and social media penetration exacerbated this. And the BJP-Shiv Sena government steadily hit at this structure, either dismantled it, or took over.


Pawar’s Politics Was Based on His Authority – Not Appeal

Then, there’s his personality. At 78 years of age, Pawar has come across as a man from a different generation. His oratory was never hailed, but he would speak forcefully on issues; his speech had been affected by oral surgeries. His politics took knocks from the compromises he made at various stages.

Sharad Pawar loomed large, but not as a cult figure like Modi – he could not be the Madison Square Garden rock star politician. Pawar’s politics was based on his authority – not appeal – which came from his long innings and experience.

Beyond that is the trust deficit. Long-time observers of Pawar’s politics may disagree on a number of things about him, but they will agree on one: his unwillingness to trust another completely, and be trust-worthy in return. His moves often surprise his political friends; no one can be sure he’s on their side.

Pawar is, after all, the politician who dumped his mentor YB Chavan and the Congress in 1978, to become Maharashtra CM, claimed PM-ship in 1991, when the embers from Rajiv Gandhi’s pyre had not cooled, and hastened to offer support to the BJP in 2014 to form the government in Maharashtra.

Rivalries Within the Pawar Family

There’s yet another factor. In the last few years, Pawar has been helmed in by rivalries within the family. For years, his nephew Ajit Pawar, former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, was the only other family person in active politics.

Then, a decade ago, Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule was fielded from his fiefdom, Baramati, and carved out a niche for herself in the parliament. She was one of the four MPs elected of the NCP in 2014.

The unwritten understanding was that she would be at the national level and Ajit Pawar at the state level. Though this led to resentment among second-tier leaders, capable and aspirational veterans like Jayant Patil, Sunil Tatkare, Vijaysinh Mohite Patil, they charted out their local fiefdoms and deferred to “Saheb”. Into this delicate balance of power, have come two young Pawar men.


Pawar’s Loosening Grip

Parth, Ajit’s son, is demanding a ticket to contest this LS election from Maval. Rohit, grandson of Appasaheb, Pawar’s older brother, is a member of Pune Zilla Parishad and assiduously building his network. Should he claim the Baramati seat in the future, it could threaten Sule. Alternatively, if he lays claim at the state level, it could upset Ajit Pawar’s equation, which is why he wants Parth introduced into electoral politics now. Party insiders say he has brought indirect pressure on Pawar for his son’s candidature, angering the veteran.

This balancing between two grandnephews, nephew and daughter, exasperates Pawar. “How many from a family should be in the electoral fray,” he asked laconically.

The sense in the party now is that Pawar can be pressurised; his word does not carry the gravitas it used to, and his influence is not enough to stitch a grand alliance in Maharashtra.

On 14-15 March he will be in New Delhi to collectively work out a “further strategy” with an array of regional leaders for the Mahagathbandhan, never mind that the anti-BJP alliance in Maharashtra did not take off.

Pawar imagines there might be a slim chance for him to still emerge as an acceptable candidate for the top job, if the Mahagathbandhan gets the numbers. As they say, an old warrior never gives up.

(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based independent journalist and editor, has reported on politics, gender and development for nearly three decades for national publications. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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