The Pawar difference

Print edition : November 05, 2004

The Nationalist Congress Party gets a new lease of life thanks to the political sagacity of its leader Sharad Pawar.

BILLED as one of the most closely fought contests in recent times, the Maharashtra Assembly elections were also widely expected to be a life and death battle for the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). But by winning the largest number of seats, the party has proved that it cannot be so easily written off. And that its leader, Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar, is still a master at the political game and continues to be the central figure in the State's politics. This stunning victory is especially sweet for the NCP because it contested fewer seats than its big-brother ally the Congress, but won two seats more than the Congress. This rally makes the NCP the single largest party in the new Assembly, technically giving it the right to stake the claim for chief ministership.

NCP supporters celebrate the party's victory in Satara.-

The NCP fielded 124 candidates while the Congress put up 157. The NCP won 71 seats (a gain of 13 seats from the 1999 elections) and the Congress 69 (a loss of six seats). One area, which played a key role in the NCP's impressive performance was the Shiv Sena's bastion - the idyllic Konkan region. It won a total of nine seats - (adding five to the four seats it won in 1999 from this region). In the Vidarbha region it made an entry and bagged four seats. Another five seats were won in the saffron-dominated region of Marathwada. In Mumbai the party gained three more seats, taking the tally to four in the metropolis. In the northern region it won three seats. Ironically, while it gained substantially in other regions, in its home turf of Western Maharashtra the NCP lost a valuable 10 seats.

A COMBINATION of factors led to the NCP's victory. However, a bulk of the credit goes to Sharad Pawar, undoubtedly one of the shrewdest and most skilful politicians in the country. Just before the elections, the NCP appeared to be on an extremely shaky wicket - as many as 35 rebels were proving to be a huge threat to the alliance and the anti-incumbency factor was looming large. The rebels were neutralised and the anti-incumbency factor was frustrated thanks purely to Pawar's management of politics. Even Pramod Mahajan, senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader applauded the veteran politician for his success while conceding defeat. "I reserve my biggest congratulations for Sharad Pawar," he told mediapersons.

In spite of his serious illness, a cancerous growth in his mouth, Pawar put himself through a punishing campaign schedule. Addressing close to a dozen rallies a day, he relentlessly campaigned across the State telling voters that it was important to elect a party that is part of the government at the Centre. His position as the Union Agriculture Minister also helped, said a senior party member. According to him, Pawar used the `I am at the Centre' line to convey the message that he can extend assistance easily and quite effectively to the rural areas.

"Pawar knows Maharashtra like the back of his hand. Never underestimate him," said a newly elected Member of the Legislative Assembly. He has a significant voter base in Western Maharashtra and is trying to make inroads into other regions. Cashing in on the Sena's neglect of the Konkan was another clever move. Moreover, "he did not hedge his chances. Each seat and the candidate for it were carefully selected". Where he felt the vote was guaranteed he put up a candidate. The NCP leadership did not give in to pressure from ticket-seekers, which probably explains the presence of so many rebels. Unless the seat looked certain, the ticket was not given. "In retrospect, this careful planning makes it very clear that the NCP knew it could not afford to lose the elections," he said.

The stakes were very high and Sharad Pawar knew it, said Kumar Ketkar, Editor of Loksatta . The performance in these elections was crucial to the party's survival. "Even if the Congress-NCP alliance had won but the NCP had lost seats or not gained any in the final tally, the party would have been in trouble," he said. Had it lost, the NCP would have disintegrated quite rapidly, with some members joining the Congress and others probably forming their own parties. The NCP is mainly backed by wealthy sugar barons who run their constituencies like minor fiefdoms. They would have had enough confidence to build their own parties, said Ketkar. In fact, Pawar perhaps had factored this in when he made conciliatory moves towards the Congress and its president Sonia Gandhi, particularly on the issue of her `foreign origin'. His forgive-and-forget attitude just before the polls led people to believe that he may have been paving the way for a merger with the parent party.

THE NCP's formation can be traced to the issue of Sonia Gandhi's `foreign origin'. In 1999, following a major spat with the Congress when he questioned Sonia Gandhi's antecedents and the dynastic and authoritarian style of leadership, Pawar broke away and formed the NCP. Soon after the party was launched, it contested the parliamentary elections. Through a number of alliances, it fielded 131 candidates in 22 States, but won only eight seats. The same year, the NCP fought the Maharashtra Assembly elections and won 58 seats - no mean achievement for a newborn party. Unfortunately, Pawar ran into a few problems. If the NCP wanted to come to power it would have to ally with the Congress. But this would be against the raison d'etre of the party. Yet, if it did not ally with the Congress the NCP experiment would fail and he may have had to return to the Congress. In the end, Pawar drove a hard bargain with the Congress and secured the Deputy Chief Minister's post as well as a few plum ministerial berths for his party.

This is the first time Pawar has achieved outright victory for the party he has led. Contrary to popular perception, he has never led a party to power with an absolute majority. In his first stint as Chief Minister of Maharashtra in 1978, he had broken away from the Congress(I) and had formed the Congress (S) and came to power as the leader of the Progressive Democratic Front - an alliance of small parties. When Pawar returned to the Congress(I) he led the party to victory in 1990 but formed a minority government. In the following elections in 1995, the Congress suffered a disastrous loss under his leadership. In spite of the reversals he and his party have suffered, Pawar has proved to be a survivor.

The Democratic Front government's lacklustre performance over the last five years should have perhaps made it a victim of the anti-incumbency factor. However, the election results have shown that a strategic campaign coupled with some clever moves can eventually swing a vote.

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