Sharad Pawar: Powering on

Print edition : November 22, 2019

NCP supremo Sharad Pawar. Photo: PTI

Pawar addressing an election rally in Satara in pouring rain in October. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Rohit Rajendra Pawar, grand-nephew of Sharad Pawar. He has been elected to the State Assembly from the Karjat-Jamkhed constituency. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Sharad Pawar single-handedly raised the morale of a flagging and dispirited NCP, reclaimed western Maharashtra for the party, and became largely responsible for preventing a BJP-Shiv Sena sweep in Maharashtra.

Much has been written about the image of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar addressing a rally in Satara, drenched to the skin, water streaming down his face. Even as people around him on the stage looked uncomfortable, Pawar powered on with the unerring instinct of a politician. To have stepped down or taken shelter would have meant a missed opportunity and that is not what the veteran politician built his reputation on.

The image was an enduring one. It was Pawar at his best, say his admirers. His detractors (who also grudgingly admire him) would say it was Pawar at his wiliest. The incident proved all the epithets he is known by: wily Maratha, Maratha strongman, king of Baramati, shrewd, crafty, and more. It showed that at 78 he was still master of his game.

It was certainly the main takeaway image of the 2019 Assembly election. And given the election outcome, it acquired iconic proportions because it came to be associated with the turnaround vote that benefited the NCP and the Congress as well as the muted mandate given to the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena.

Although the Satara rally was a defining moment for the NCP, the credit for the party’s turnaround cannot be solely ascribed to it. It has to be shared with the 66 other rallies and meetings that Pawar addressed. It was these that rescued the Congress-NCP alliance from the edge of irrelevance and oblivion.

Failure is instructive, and no one knows that better than Pawar, who demonstrated this when he asked the crowd at a Pune rally to forgive him and help him “correct the mistake [he made]” in trusting a man who did not value his seat. The double meanings were not lost on the crowd, who roared in approval. The man he was referring to was Udayanraje Bhosale. The “mistake” that Pawar referred to was fielding Bhosale, a direct descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji, as the NCP candidate for the Satara Lok Sabha seat. The constituency was not just the NCP’s stronghold but Bhosale’s hereditary seat, the “throne” of Shivaji. Bhosale won the Satara Lok Sabha seat in May but within months defected to the BJP. The Election Commission announced a byelection for the Satara seat. In the October byelection, the two-time MP lost to the NCP’s Shriniwas Patil.

Pawar also knows the value of acknowledging his mistakes. In a post-results meeting, he said that the NCP had to strengthen its urban base, thereby recognising the fact that the party had fared poorly in urban areas. He also said he would be inducting new faces in the State party. But while he is all set to give the NCP the right orientation, he is aware of the essential elements that he and his party are made of. He is under no illusion that these basics need to change. Although the NCP launched as a national party, it has its roots in Maharashtra. Pawar hopes to strengthen the regional roots and build on them.

Leadership comes easily to Pawar, and if it seemed that he had taken a break from it, then he is ready to dispel that impression. He said after the elections that the NCP should play the role of a strong opposition, given the response it received from the electorate. He is keeping the NCP relevant by relating to current affairs.

Speaking in Mumbai, he said: “The Ayodhya results [Supreme Court judgment] will be announced soon, and it is a matter of faith... whatever the judgment is, we have to make sure that it is accepted and peace prevails everywhere.... no two communities should have fights. Communal harmony should be maintained. There are chances that some forces might take advantage of this, but it is important to be calm and accept things.”

In a snide attack on the BJP, he said: “It is fine to have 370, but there are so many important issues. Whenever asked about farmers’ issues they [BJP] talk about 370. Industries are shutting down, but they talk about 370. They just keep talking about 370. We speak about jobs, they keep speaking about 370.”

Takes things head-on

Pawar likes to take things head-on. When he was named in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam by the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.), he did not cower. He first asserted that he had never been on the board of directors as was being alleged. And then, when the pressure did not ease up, he said he would present himself at the E.D.’s office. The Model Code of Conduct was in place by then, and fearing a law and order problem, senior officers of the Mumbai Police went to Pawar and suggested that he call off his plan. By then, Pawar had gained some momentum among his cadres, and the request to make him withdraw his plans to appear before the E.D. gave credence to the idea that dragging his name into the scam was politically motivated plan. The move to discredit him backfired and even got Pawar some sympathy. He cashed in on the mood by embarking on a State-wide yatra.

In the run-up to the election, Pawar had to battle storms within the NCP. There were large-scale defections from the party, especially in western Maharashtra, and party colleague Praful Patel was under the scanner for alleged dealings in real estate along with the late gangster Iqbal Mirchi. So it is to Pawar’s credit that the party’s morale was high enough to win 54 seats. He also had to tackle tantrums and ego issues within his family. During the E.D. episode, his nephew and former Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar resigned as MLA and disappeared for a day. He later appeared at a press conference with Sharad Pawar and broke down. He attributed his actions to anxiety triggered by the E.D. episode. Rumours have it that Ajit Pawar was unhappy with Sharad Pawar promoting his grand-nephew Rohit Rajendra Pawar (who has been elected to the State Assembly from the Karjat-Jamkhed constituency). During the election campaign, Rohit Pawar was frequently heard exhorting youths and was often seen by the side of Sharad Pawar.

The NCP’s good performance underlines a simple fact. The BJP’s central leadership should give its State leaders a free hand. This method proved successful in Rajasthan with Vasundhara Raje, in Madhya Pradesh with Shivraj Chauhan, in Goa with the late Manohar Parrikar, and even in Gujarat with Narendra Modi when he was Chief Minister. The limp hand given to the State party led to the upset wins of the Congress-NCP in several constituencies. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was the only star campaigner for the party from New Delhi, and he addressed only seven rallies, all lacklustre. Compare that with the 66 rallies Pawar held all over the State. It was not just his presence at these rallies, but the fact that he consistently raised issues pertaining to agriculture, food, irrigation, prices, health and everything that mattered in everyday lives that stood in sharp contrast. Pawar did not fall into the trap of overly defending himself or his party against the personal or nationalistic jibes that the BJP was aiming at the opposition.

Sharad Pawar is the oldest serving politician in Maharashtra. His political career took off when he entered the State Assembly in 1967 by winning the Baramati seat, which he or his family members have held continuously since then. The Pawar family has held the Baramati Lok Sabha seat since 1991. Pawar’s political legacy is carried on by his daughter and Baramati MP Supriya Sule, his nephew and Baramati MLA Ajit Pawar, and his grand-nephew and the newly elected Karjat-Jamkhed MLA Rohit Pawar.

Sharad Pawar’s achievements in the October Assembly elections have been many. He single-handedly raised the morale of a flagging and dispirited NCP; he reclaimed western Maharashtra for the party; he was largely responsible for preventing Union Home Minister and BJP president Amit Shah’s boast of a shat pratishat BJP (100 per cent BJP) from coming true in Maharashtra; he ensured that the NCP, although a breakaway party, emerged as a the stronger partner in the alliance with the Congress. This is not about just one-upmanship but a crucial element when it comes to the selection of the Leader of the Opposition and in the Legislative Council elections to be held in early 2020.

On the Lok Sabha election trail many years ago, Pawar had told this correspondent: “Politics is an up and down for parties and people. You must never say never and you must be ready to take help from everyone.” During the two and a half days of campaigning, Pawar dropped his impassive face from time to time and related stories about his childhood. He said that during his student days he lived in a town and not in his village. Every day, his mother would send food through the driver of the State transport bus that stopped at the village, and Pawar would collect the food from the driver. It is common practice for State transport bus drivers/conductors to act as couriers for people of remote villages and towns, but the story of Pawar collecting his food parcel every day is etched in memory, more so because of the simple way in which he narrated the incident.

While travelling in a helicopter, Pawar could identify the crops in the fields below. From up above in the sky, the fields looked like patchwork quilts, but Pawar was familiar with the seasonal planting. His knowledge extended to other things too, such as guiding the pilot where to land. It was sundown, and the deceptive light of dusk and criss-crossed wires in the landing area made the pilot hesitant. He wanted to turn back, but Pawar told him that a nearby field was free of hindrances for landing.

Pawar is natural with everyone he meets, which makes everyone feel easy with him. During one campaign trip, as soon as the rotor blades stopped whirring, he stepped out of the helicopter on his own and walked over to greet Dr Padamsinh Patil, a trusted friend and relative by marriage who had joined the NCP when it was formed. Padamsinh Patil recently defected to the BJP, and it was difficult to reconcile the defection with the earlier memory of him standing there in his crisp, white kurta pyjama to greet Pawar.

At yet another field, during a brief stopover at a nondescript village, the headman came and sat inside the tiny cabin. Before they got down to business, Pawar enquired about the headman’s health and the well-being of his wife, pregnant daughter-in-law and grandchildren (naming all of them). The man sought some assistance, and Pawar promised to get it. Satisfied, they talked about the election, and Pawar asked him what help he could give—the leader of a national party, crouching in the cabin of a helicopter, asking a local man for advice on election strategy for his area. Pawar asked him: “How does it look for us in this area?” The man hesitated and then said it did not look good. Pawar nodded and left it at that. The amazing part of the conversation was that the man was not afraid of giving an honest answer.

There is very little playing to the gallery; no standing on ceremonies, no insistence that his vehicle be met by the local Superintendent of Police or the Commissioner; no obsession with security details. It must be recalled that after the damage to the Bombay Stock Exchange in the 1993 bomb blasts, Pawar directed his aides, unhampered by personal security.

Interesting takeaway of election

One interesting takeaway of the 2019 Assembly election is the new perception of Pawar as the leader not only of the NCP but also of the Congress. It is not a carefully constructed perception. It is one that evolved organically because, as a retired bureaucrat put it, “he was the only one who really worked in this election”. In this context, Prithviraj Chavan’s statement that Pawar was not standing for election and, therefore, was not bound to a single constituency and could travel far and wide, whereas others had to focus on their own constituencies, might sound a bit harsh. But the fact remains that at 78 and ailing, Pawar emerged as the unlikely star of the show.

Although his speeches are not peppered with the wit and biting sarcasm of the late Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, he has come up with a few memorable ones. At one rally Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis took a potshot at Pawar, bragging that the BJP would overrun western Maharashtra because there were no “pehelwans” (strongmen or wrestlers) representing the NCP there. In answer to this jibe, Pawar said at one rally: “The Chief Minister says there are no wrestlers opposing the BJP-Shiv Sena. He is not aware that I am the president of the Wrestling Association of Maharashtra. I make pehelwans.”

The NCP’s performance has proved that in this election Pawar has emerged as the pehelwan.