Sharad Govindrao Pawar, the president of Nationalist Congress Party, is the political equivalent of legendary magician Harry Houdini. The Hungarian-born American artist could leave even the most rational and sceptical ones in his audience surprised. It may seem unfair, and perhaps even a bit absurd, to compare the illusionist with the Machiavellian politician. But their ability to overcome all odds far outweigh the differences between them.
If Houdini displayed magnificent skill in moments of crisis, emerging unscathed from the dangerous traps he set for himself, Sharad Pawar has shown what being the fulcrum of a state’s politics for more than five decades looks like.
A guru and an ally
Sharad Pawar is positively seen as the “godfather” of Maharashtra’s politics, and has perhaps got reliable friends more in the opposition than in the Congress, the party he initially owed allegiance to. He has also closely interacted with the BJP and the RSS. At a function in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had heaped lavish praise on him. “I have no hesitation in accepting that (Sharad) Pawar held my hand and taught me to walk in my early days in Gujarat,” Modi had said.
Today, Sharad Pawar is Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s most trusted ally in Maharashtra. He is the same man who had opposed her candidature for the prime ministership in 1999 citing her ‘foreign (Italian) origins’. With P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar, he formed the NCP that same year, after the three of them were expelled from the party. The ‘Nationalist’ or ‘rashtravadi’ in the NCP’s name was a direct, confrontational signal to the Congress that was led by a ‘foreigner’ or ‘videshi‘.
Despite their history, Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar are on the same page today.
What has given Pawar’s image a considerable boost is the Enforcement Directorate’s recent act of booking him for money laundering in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank case, less than a month before the state goes to polls on 21 October.
The inquiry comes at a time when his party and ally Congress are in deep trouble. The NCP’s second- and third-rung leaders and activists have defected to the BJP. But Pawar has been able to turn the ED adversity into a wonderful opportunity for himself. Playing the victim, he has campaigned all over the state with great enthusiasm and verve, and has made Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and the entire state Congress leadership back him in his fight. The Congress seems more dependent on Pawar for the upcoming election than it is on its own leadership.
Even Sanjay Raut, Shiv Sena leader and his political nemesis, has come out in his support, saying that he sees the ED case “from the point of view of the next month’s assembly elections.”
At the same time, speculations of ‘feud’ in the Pawar family that emerged after his nephew Ajit Pawar resigned from the assembly have been put to rest by Ajit himself. “I was perturbed as I felt it was because of me that he had to face infamy at this age. Hence, I decided to resign in keeping with my conscience.”
A relentless fighter
In 2004, Sharad Pawar had campaigned while being under severe pain from oral cancer, for which he underwent “32 days of chemotherapy”. “I would start work at 9 am, and at 3 pm I would go to the hospital. It’s a battle. Either you succeed, or you lose everything,” he told historian Patrick French in an interview years later.
This relentlessness stems from how Pawar, like Houdini, performed in difficult circumstances at various stages in his political career, turning things in his favour most of the times.
A protege of Yashwantrao Chavan, the first chief minister of Maharashtra, Pawar came into his own in 1978. At 38, he became the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra, forming a coalition with the Janata Party.
When the Indira Gandhi-led Congress returned to power in 1980, Pawar did not join the party and spent the next six years in political wilderness. His return to the centre stage began after he joined the Congress again in 1986.
In late 1990, Sharad Pawar, chief minister at the time, found himself in deep trouble. The loyalists of Rajiv Gandhi (sitting in the opposition after losing the general election the previous year) had rebelled against Pawar. It was being openly suggested that Rajiv Gandhi was behind the rebellion as he wanted Pawar to go. But Rajiv Gandhi himself ended Pawar’s humiliating period by coming out in his support.
A few months later, Pawar was back to facing a challenging situation again. The Congress had withdrawn support to the Chandra Shekhar government at the Centre, and forced a general election. As the campaign was on, the nation was left shocked by Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. When the election results came out, the Congress found itself in a position to form the government. Sonia Gandhi was approached by the Congress Working Committee, which included Sharad Pawar and P.V. Narasimha Rao, to take charge of the party — and thus be the PM candidate. But she refused, citing family responsibilities.
Her decision meant that the contest was now between Rao and Pawar. Rao eventually succeeded and Pawar accepted the charge of defence minister. But the relationship between the two had soured. Barely 18 months into his term, Rao faced his biggest political challenge. Riots broke out across the country following the demolition of Babri Masjid by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)-led goons. Mumbai was the worst affected and then-Maharashtra Chief Minister Sudhakarrao Naik was seen as incompetent to bring the situation under control.
Rao asked Pawar to take charge of the state, which the latter’s supporters initially believed to be the PM’s plan to remove the Maratha strongman from the central cabinet. Within a week of Pawar becoming the CM for the third time, Mumbai suffered its worst terrorist attack on 12 March 1993. Later that September, a major earthquake hit Latur. Pawar’s political and administrative acumen made him rise to the occasion during both the crises.
Be it intra-party rebellion, critical administrative scenarios, opposition allegations of scams — Pawar has faced all. Each time, his critics have believed the ‘Pawar story’ to be over. And each time, Pawar has proved them wrong.
Pawar’s greatest political strength has been his ability to mingle with people from all groups — writers, journalists, medical professionals to sportspersons and scientists. Pawar was the first person in politics to plan the integration of Information Technology and Biotechnology (IT-BT) when he was the chief minister of Maharashtra in 1995.
Sharad Pawar has cultivated a deep political and socio-cultural network. There is hardly any field where he has not left his footprint. If he has held the presidentship of Kabaddi Sangh, then he has also been at the helm of Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). He is the permanent president of Y.B. Chavan Centre as well as the Nehru Centre, Mumbai’s two leading socio-cultural-intellectual centres.
Sharad Pawar’s influence over the Indian Administrative Service in Maharashtra remains comprehensive even today. Pawar is respected in bureaucratic circles and police establishment as if he is still the “Boss”. Indeed, he is known more as “Pawar saheb”.
He remains in regular contact with industrialists as well as technocrats. At one point, many industrialists had campaigned for his Prime Ministership. Rahul Bajaj went on to say that “Sharad Pawar is the best prime minister India never had”.
At 79, Pawar and his NCP have received a new lease of life. Unfazed by the defections and taking the ED case in his stride, Pawar has become the victim-hero in Maharashtra and the BJP is suddenly on the defensive.
The NCP may not come to power, but Pawar will continue to have a “Houdini” dimension to his personality. Perhaps even Houdini would have appreciated the political acrobatics of Sharad Pawar.
The author is a former editor and Congress member of Rajya Sabha. Views are personal.