Nationalist Congress Party: Pawar’s power

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Sharad Pawar, NCP chief, and his daughter and Rajya Sabha member Supriya Sule. Photo: PTI

Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar (fourth from left) and Maharashtra NCP chief Bhaskar Rao (second from left) welcome MNS workers from Amaravati, who joined the NCP in Mumbai on March 23. Photo: PTI

Wily and unpredictable are some of the epithets frequently used to describe Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar. The former Congress leader holds his cards close to his chest, speaks little, betrays even less from his facial expressions, and does not trust anyone easily. He has a prodigious memory and is an able administrator.

Given all these traits, it is no wonder that Pawar has never lost an election. He was Chief Minister of Maharashtra three times, and in his 73rd year, is a member of the Rajya Sabha. His five-decade-long political career has been tempestuous and successful. Some say the Rajya Sabha is a fitting place for him in his golden years. It is more likely that Pawar knows that the Lok Sabha elections have become unpredictable and is merely widening his options. In any case, he has made his peace with the Congress high command, Sonia Gandhi, but may not be able to work under Rahul Gandhi, who was not even born when Pawar won the Baramati Assembly seat for the first time in 1967.

Although it may seem as if he is relinquishing his hold on State politics, it would be imprudent to believe so. Pawar may have moved on to New Delhi but he has posted a rearguard. Pawar minus Maharashtra politics is like a sugar factory without sugar.

Taking a step back from the hurly-burly of politics, Pawar said there was a need for young blood to take over the NCP. He has worked it out systematically. Baramati has returned him in every election, both Assembly and parliamentary, since 1967. In 1996, he contested from the Baramati Lok Sabha seat and won every Lok Sabha election from there after that. In 2009, he vacated the seat for his daughter, Supriya Sule, who holds it and is defending it again this time. In 2009, Pawar contested from Madha and won, but vacated that seat too because he had set his sights on the Rajya Sabha.

Now he is looking for a next-generation leader for the NCP. There are two potential candidates to lead the party. Both are from the Pawar family, as is appropriate for a man who has had his grounding in the dynastic Congress tradition. The two contenders are Supriya Sule and Ajit Pawar, his nephew and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra. Supriya Sule prefers politics at the national level and has evinced no interest in the rigours of running a party or the heat and dust of the Assembly elections. It is a wise decision on her part to stay in the confines of her father’s legacy in Baramati, especially considering the fact that she is a latecomer to politics and has none of his skills. Ajit is a willing heir.

But Ajit is involved in the Rs.70,000-crore irrigation scam, in which he surpassed himself not just for the staggering figure, but for his crude comment about urinating in dams to raise the water level. The furore that his unsavoury remark caused led to his resignation as Deputy Chief Minister last year. But within a few months he was reinstated. Fretfully impatient, the younger Pawar has been marshalling troops in the districts. Although a political coup is not in the offing, he is certainly exhibiting his credentials as the next leader of the NCP.

Like his uncle, Ajit has laid no specific guidelines for the party. The NCP exists as a source of power and the direction it takes will depend on the outcome of the elections. This could be anything ranging from forming new alliances to reworking old equations. In fact, it is a case of the leader being bigger than the party.

The NCP’s formation was based on a negative. Sharad Pawar, Tariq Anwar and P.A. Sangma objected to the Congress being led by a “foreigner”, Sonia Gandhi. They were expelled from the party. This led them to form the NCP in May 1999. Of the three, only Pawar has a strong grounding, in Maharashtra, and he is solely responsible for the continuing existence of the NCP. That is why the party is largely associated with Maharashtra. Although the Election Commission has categorised it as a national party, it has a regional flavour.

Within four months of its formation, the NCP allied itself with the Congress, thereby proving that Pawar has a solid grasp over the politics of convenience. He is also a pragmatic opportunist who understands that the only way for the NCP to survive is to hitch it to the Congress wagon. So convinced was he of the need for a Congress-NCP alliance that in the 2004 Assembly elections, even though the NCP had the majority, Pawar agreed to let the Congress keep the Chief Minister’s post. Although the NCP needs the Congress more, the relationship is one of mutual convenience. While the Congress has its hoary tradition to back it, Pawar has retained his hold on the moneyed western Maharashtra region.

While the 2004 Lok Sabha elections saw a 50-50 vote share for the Congress and the NCP, the 2009 elections saw a swing, with the Congress getting 68 per cent of the votes and the NCP’s share dropping to 38. Relations between the two parties have definitely not improved in the past five years, and in any case, with all the acrimony that has happened in the run-up to the current election, there is no telling what will happen to the alliance this time.

The NCP’s fate depends on Pawar. Pawar is known for his political somersaults. In 1978, he walked out of the Congress with Devaraj Urs and others. He then split the Congress (Urs) and formed a government with the Janata Party and became Maharashtra’s youngest Chief Minister. In 1986, he merged his faction with the Congress, which was then led by Rajiv Gandhi.

Pawar has nurtured the NCP only because he sees it as a convenient vehicle.

Lyla Bavadam

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