Friday, 19 August, 2022
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Being Sharad Pawar

In politics, whether of power or cricket, Pawar takes no prisoners, but if he occasionally does, follows no Geneva Convention.

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In the run-up to the 2009 national election campaign, when Prakash Karat was taking away UPA allies and collecting all anti-Congress forces under one tent with Mayawati as their PM candidate, the Congress’s most loyal ally, Sharad Pawar, caused it some panic by saying it was still possible to have the Left back as an ally. Was he defecting to Maya-Karat? Was he positioning himself at some equidistant vantage point anticipating a hung House? Or was he just being Sharad Pawar?

Now, there isn’t a better reader of his fellow politicians’ mind than Pranab Mukherjee. Asked what to make of Pawar’s latest, he said, “Sharad Pawar always gives mixed signals.”

There couldn’t be a sharper description for Pawar, one of the most fascinating political players of his generation. Ask his bitterest rivals, and they will tell you they have no friend like him to count on, but personally. A real yaaron ka yaar. In politics, whether of power or cricket, he takes no prisoners, but if he occasionally does, follows no Geneva Convention. Do check with Jagmohan Dalmiya, Lalit Modi, even Suresh Kalmadi. No one I have known in our politics has Pawar’s ability to keep the personal and the political apart. It is as if he was born with a Great Wall in his head, or a circuit breaker that trips the moment the two intersect. The only other name that would come close would be the late Chandra Shekhar. He had charm but not the resources of a Pawar, the man with the widest network of friendships and IOUs in our politics.

What is he telling us now as his home state Maharashtra, by far the second most important in India (48 Lok Sabha seats after UP’s 80) and the richest, heads for its most open election? What we know for sure is that he is out of UPA, talking to everybody, swearing by his secular commitment, saying emphatically he will never join BJP. But then, remember his favourite line: nobody is untouchable.


Also read: After year in opposition, this is how ‘unbeatable’ BJP is planning to regroup in Maharashtra


 

Pawar is secular to the extent of being almost an atheist, which is saying a lot for a man who has endured two rounds of surgery, chemo and radiation, one more radical than the other, for oral cancer. Exactly like his friends in the Left and DMK, and Chidambaram and Antony in Congress, he takes his oath of office not in the name of God, but by “solemnly affirming”. I first got to know him in the early 1990s when he was P.V. Narasimha Rao’s defence minister and drew immediate suspicion as he talked of gentrifying sprawling but rotting old cantonments and putting their surplus land to better use. Here comes a man who knows more about Bombay’s real estate than you and I know about our living rooms, and he now wants defence land! I myself made the odd smart alecky joke about it. At a dinner, I “warned” a Pakistani envoy to not even dream of going to war with India now. “After every war so far, you got your territory back from us after ceasefire,” I said. “But not now. By the time we exchange maps, we would have sold the land to builders who would in turn have sold Pakistan View Apartments to buyers.” It was a cheap shot, but nobody minded. Such was the folklore about Pawar.

There is no better classroom in a reporter’s life than time spent pavement-thumping on a beat. Since defence was among those I watched (for India Today), I could see Pawar more closely. He was correct, effective and thoughtful, drawing his inspiration from his mentor Y.B. Chavan, who had rebuilt our forces after 1962.

In his very short tenure, Pawar instituted one landmark change for which nobody gives him credit, opening up the armed forces to women. It is tempting to speculate that it could be because his only child is a daughter, but he was always ahead of his time on gender correctness. He legislated property rights for women in Maharashtra and gave them 33 per cent reservation in local body elections.

Pawar had challenged Rao for prime ministership and lost. Yet, when Bombay burned after the Babri Masjid demolition in end-1992, Rao counted on him to return and restore order, which he brilliantly did. Soon enough, Bombay was hit by a bigger crisis, the serial blasts of March 1993, and he was up to scratch. He later made a disclosure to me in a 2006 on-record interview that he had deliberately lied to control the situation that afternoon, saying that bombs had gone off in a Muslim-dominated locality as well. Thus he confused, if not calmed, angry Hindus and Sainiks, giving his police time to take control.

We saw him go up and down, particularly after he broke away from Congress and set up his Nationalist Congress Party. But as a rare UPA minister to hold the same portfolio for 10 years, he proved a much, much better agriculture minister than Congress would ever give him credit for. While the povertarian Congress discourse perpetuated the farmer distress and suicide story, the sector actually saw remarkable growth. If Manmohan Singh ever writes a candid memoir, he’d also tell you Pawar was his most loyal, reformist ally in the cabinet, stoically putting up with frequent humiliation by Congress.


Also read: ‘Not remote control or headmaster’, but Sharad Pawar’s clout has only grown in a year of MVA


 

How does this description of secular, patriotic and astute square with the more infamous aspects to his image? Venal, the richest politician in India, Asia or anywhere in the world, depending on who you are talking to, kulak, a closet socialist even. Can such a complex image be all fiction? His close friend and senior party leader D.P. Tripathi believes Pawar is being made to pay, unfairly, for his generous nature and lifestyle. Stories of him helping political rivals are legion and the amounts supposedly involved are then squared or cubed. It is also true that unlike our hypocritical political class in general, Pawar is not particularly austere. He is a lavish host, a happy guest and his farmhouse in Baramati is a real mansion. But in that republic of his, he is also a god. Drive through Pawarland, you will find his portraits along with Ganesha and other gods in barber shops and tea stalls.

In 2009 (when Pranab made his “mixed signals” remark), West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee asked Tripathi to describe Pawar. “I told him, he is India’s only genuine bourgeois leader, ” Tripathi says. Later when he recounted this to Pawar, “he said, arrey, you call me bourgeois?” Tripathi told him it was a compliment as that is what India needed to break its feudal politics. He recalls how, at a recent function in Parliament, Narendra Modi himself walked up to greet Pawar and complained why he wasn’t coming to see old friends like him. “That is what I mean by bourgeois, actually, zameen se juda hua leader, ” Tripathi says. “Sonia and Rahul would never do this.”

What does this bring us to? I know he has been seething for a long time. Particularly with the Congress singling him and his party out for the humongous corruption in his state. They are no angels, but he has a point when he says that the urban development portfolio, which is like a mint and not just an ATM in Maharashtra, has always been with Congress, along with the chief ministership, so look who is talking. The political reporter in me is fascinated by his latest moves. But if I were to be a pure analyst, I’d say his signals this time are less than mixed: he’d stay secular, but would love to be needed by the largest single party or group. He will live by his most durable principle: nobody is untouchable.


Also read: How NCP’s Ajit Pawar has remained politically relevant year after ‘midnight coup’


 

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