The NCP uses its seventh anniversary celebrations to project itself as the national leader of non-Congress secular parties.LYLA BAVADAM in Surat
THE Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is charting a new political course. Its initial aim of ensuring that no person of "foreign origin" occupies the Prime Minister's seat seems to have been put on the back burner with the party repositioning itself as the leader of non-Congress secular forces. It plans to assume the role of a mediator between such parties and the Congress.
The party's new stance was made clear in Surat, Gujarat, on June 9-10 during the seventh anniversary celebrations of its formation. Symbolism was in evidence everywhere at the Sardar stadium, from the backdrop of the stage decorated with portraits of various national icons such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mahatma Phule, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru to the choice of Surat as the venue. The most frequent question NCP president and Union Minister Sharad Pawar had to answer was "Why Surat?" He gave the usual replies of Surat being close to Maharashtra, the importance the city had in the erstwhile State of Bombay as a centre for trade, and the city's historical association with the early days of the Congress. What Pawar did not make clear was that the choice of the venue was part of his attempt to establish the NCP as a national party. This was obvious from the meeting at Surat. There are over four lakh registered Maratha voters in Surat district.
The two-day meeting was important in other respects too. It marked the return of former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma to the party. A co-founder of the NCP with Pawar and Tariq Anwar, Sangma disagreed with Pawar on the "foreigner" issue during the 2004 general elections and left the party. He later joined hands with Mamata Banerjee to form the Nationalist Trinamul Congress. Sangma, currently a Member of Parliament, was in the front row on the dais at Surat. He told mediapersons later that he had decided "in principle" to rejoin the NCP.
Also on the dais in Surat were Congress general secretary Mukul Wasnik, Union Minister and Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) leader Ram Vilas Paswan, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) chief Shibu Soren, Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary A.B. Bardhan, People's Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Basudev Acharya, former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and Republican Party of India (A) leader Ramdas Athawale.
The high-flying nature of the meeting was affected by the failure of certain leaders to turn up. Railway Minister Lalu Prasad and National Conference leader Farooq Abdullah were scheduled to arrive but ultimately did not. Others such as Union Minister Dayanidhi Maran (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and Telangana Rashtra Samiti leader Chandrashekhara Rao sent their representatives. If Pawar had succeeded in having Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan or Mehbooba Mufti and Farooq Abdullah on the same stage, then he might have succeeded in projecting his role as a mediator.
However, Pawar's unabashed attempts at linking the NCP and the Congress - both in his references to the Congress meetings in Surat and in inviting Sonia Gandhi to the celebrations - succeeded partially. Although Sonia Gandhi declined Pawar's invitation, she sent Mukul Wasnik as her representative. It was an affirmation that the Congress-NCP alliance that was forged in Maharashtra for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections was strong despite the disagreements between the two partners at the State level.
Pawar's endeavour to project the NCP as a national party has come at an opportune moment. The Assembly elections in Bihar later this year and in Kerala in May 2006 will give opportunities for the party to play the role of the leader of non-Congress secular forces. And with the party's good performance in the last Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly elections, it will be a useful ally to the Congress.
THE NCP epitomises the maxim "there are no permanent friends or foes in politics". A party whose raison d'etre was the rejection of Congress president Sonia Gandhi for her "foreign origins", it is now candid about its association with the Congress. And yet, the Surat meeting was so well managed that at no point there was a hint of opportunism or that the NCP wanted to return to the fold of its parent party. The reason for this is clear enough. Last year's elections in Maharashtra saw the NCP emerge as the leading partner in the Congress-NCP alliance. The party has established itself in Maharashtra and is still growing. The recent induction into the party of three legislators - Ramesh Prabhu and Bhaskar Jadhav of the Shiv Sena and Hemendra Mehta of the Bharatiya Janata Party - has further consolidated its position in the State's politics.
In Gujarat too the NCP fared well in comparison to its dismal performance immediately after its formation. In fact, it would be far off the mark to say that Wasnik's presence in Surat was a sort of olive branch. Asked if the Congress saw the NCP as a threat in Gujarat, Pawar replied: "They are big people. We are small. How can we affect the Congress?" But it was obvious that the Maratha leader was delighted that his party clearly had an impact on the Gujarat unit of the Congress. Besides, the presence of former Congress leaders such as Chhabildas Mehta, Sanat Mehta and Jayant Patel in the NCP is likely to be a matter of concern for the Congress though they are dismissed as no longer influential. The NCP has been strengthening itself among Gujarat's farmers. In a move that made Pawar a household name in rural Maharashtra three decades ago, the NCP is working hard at the grassroots level, reorganising farmers cooperatives and working on a project in which panchayats with Internet access will be provided daily market rates of agricultural commodities. In Goa the NCP has succeeded in ensuring that both its MLAs are made Ministers in Congress-led government. In both Goa and Gujarat there is no strong third front - a fact that Pawar emphasised - and the NCP hopes to work towards creating one.
The political and economic resolutions adopted at the meeting too pointed to the NCP's new-found role. They were drafted in such way as to appeal to a wide audience. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's ideas on welfare economics were referred to in the economic resolution in order to reach out to the Left parties. Explaining the presence of the Left parties at the Surat meeting, Pawar said: "It is the first time in our parliamentary history that 61 Left candidates have been elected. It is a clear signal that people want a reversal of policies." But how does this fit in with the policies of liberalisation and globalisation that Pawar supports? "We are not against liberalisation or globalisation. We want liberalisation internationally but we also want to protect our domestic producers and, yes, this is possible." In his speech, A.B. Bardhan made it clear why he was on an NCP platform. Describing the NCP as the "bulwark against the BJP" in Maharashtra, Bardhan cautioned against simplistic economic reforms. Pawar scored a few points when the NCP's avowal of secularism and economic security, especially of farmers, was endorsed by the speeches of Paswan, Mehbooba Mufti and Shibu Soren.
With representation in 12 Assemblies, the NCP fulfils the Election Commission's criteria to be considered a national party. But the reality is that the party's sphere of political influence does not extend much beyond Maharashtra. A national party only in name, the NCP remains a regional party. It is a case of a strength becoming a weakness. Sharad Pawar''s overwhelming influence in and control of the NCP has attracted other strong leaders such as Chhagan Bhujbal, Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, R.R. Patil and Praful Patel into its fold. But, on the other hand, Pawar, who is associated almost totally with Maharashtra and specifically Maratha politics, finds it difficult to erase this regional image and project himself as a national leader.
Seen in terms of the celebrations, the Surat meeting was a success. More than 15,000 people turned up from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and even Meghalaya. The dais was filled with leaders representing different parties and schools of thought. But so far Pawar's political efforts outside Maharashtra have been largely unsuccessful. The NCP's new course is definitely less ambitious than what was spelt out in its first manifesto, but it nevertheless has a grand plan.