It was not mere solicitude that prompted Baramati MP Supriya Sule to greet and hug Nationalist Congress Party MLAs outside the Maharashtra assembly Wednesday. She was staking claim to her father Sharad Pawar’s party, especially when she hugged her challenger and cousin Ajit Pawar. Looking part sheepish and part sly, Ajit Pawar couldn’t match Sule’s wide smile.
For a reason.
In the month-long political drama that has unfolded in Maharashtra, Supriya Sule is the silent winner.
Ajit Pawar’s death grip over the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has been publicly and embarrassingly shaken. Although he is back in the party, and with a hard-earned clean chit from Maharashtra’s Anti-Corruption Bureau in the irrigation scam (even if it is only in nine of the reported 3,000 cases), Ajit Pawar is not the same man. Nor is it the same party.
Shift in NCP, led by Sule
Depending on who you choose to believe, either Sharad Pawar engineered Ajit’s move to align with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to ensure that the cases against him are closed, or he did so to settle the inheritance question once and for all and clear the path for daughter Supriya Sule.
Having realised that real power resides in the state, especially with the BJP’s Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the Centre, Sharad Pawar has paved the way for his daughter to take over the reins of the NCP – abandoning the old formula of Ajit Pawar running the state and Supriya Sule aiming for a seat at the central high table.
Sule, a three-time MP, also seems to be echoing the shift in power play. In the run-up to the assembly election in Maharashtra, it was she who was by Sharad Pawar’s side, reaching out, giving sound bites, in place of the customary Praful Patel. NewsX star anchor Priya Sahgal, who has been tracking Sule for years, said: “It is Sharad Pawar’s ambition, unstated but understood, to make her the first woman chief minister of Maharashtra. Will she now be an MLA at some point and deputy chief minister is anyone’s guess, but this election saw her coming of age.”
Accessible, affable Sule
Supriya Sule is a chip off the old block. At 50, she already has an enviable cross-party network, much like her father. She maintains friendly relationships across treasury benches — from Neeraj Shekhar, now BJP Rajya Sabha MP, to Omar Abdullah of National Conference, Sushmita Dev of Congress, Poonam Mahajan of the BJP. Her style is accessible and affable, cooperative rather than competitive, relaxed and not rough-and-ready.
And this extends to her cousin Ajit too, says her long-time friend and former BJP MP Mavendra Singh. “Because of Supriya, we’ve always called him Ajit Dada. The bond between the two has been very strong and despite what was written earlier about competing cousins, there is no such thing. In fact, she has never referred to him as anything other than brother. Her pain at his surprise step was palpable and very public,” he said.
Supriya Sule’s hurt was apparent after the early morning coup last Saturday when she updated her WhatsApp status to say “party and family split”.
Knowing her, Manvendra Singh said, he is certain Sule played a pivotal role in Ajit Pawar’s return to the NCP family fold. “She’s been behind the scenes what her father has been in public — a key player,” he adds. Her stature has grown overnight, with some journalists already calling her “tai” (elder sister).
So, has the inheritance issue been settled? Can it be said that Supriya Sule went from being the Darling of Lutyens’ Delhi to Maharashtra’s very own tai? The jury is still out. Even at the Trident in Mumbai Tuesday, supporters of Ajit Pawar were seen holding placards that read ‘Ajit dada, we love you’. He still has heft within the party.
Connects with common people
But Sule has also learnt politics at the feet of a master strategist, whose national presence has also been higher than his actual political relevance. Father Sharad Pawar has increasingly been relying on her. But Sule’s style of politics is distinct. Former MP MiIind Deora said, “She is an effective politician because she is low-key, avoids controversies, and believes that social work and policy change are the paths to empowerment. I share these values and admire her for staying the course.” Should she take over the party (NCP), it would be different from its current image of landlords, money grubbers and status quoists. It would reflect her.
Sule is no sugar baroness of Baramati. Her heart beats for the stressed-out urban workforce, which is connected with their bosses 24×7 through smartphones and Internet and the ‘persistent urge to respond to calls and emails’. She became the millennial Wordsworth of work-life balance when, in January, she surprised many by introducing a private member bill called the Right to Disconnect Bill.
Sule also gets the pulse of the national mood. In July, right after the Balakot-affected election victory for Narendra Modi, she introduced another bill urging the government to grant a lump sum of Rs 2 crore and job quotas for the families of military personnel killed in action.
So, what to make of her, really? What makes Sule so popular in Delhi’s political set? Priyanka Chaturvedi of the Shiv Sena says it is because she is helpful, friendly, genuine, grounded and warm – a rarity in politics. “She knows her space, dominates it with grace and dignity, and at the same time, isn’t insecure of her colleagues. For her, family is supreme, the rest come later,” Chaturvedi said. And though no one wants to predict the course of her party leadership, Manvendra Singh says she has tremendous outreach, both with the public and across the political spectrum. “Where that will take her and where she wants to go, I can’t speculate.”
Rising stature, speculations
Twitterverse is already abuzz with her ascent. There are suggestions that she be made the chief minister, suggestions that she will soon be in the “same league” as Indira Gandhi, much appreciation for her warmth (a smile, handshake and a hug), and for her cross-party class, for how she greeted former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.
Sule has been quite categorical about dynasty politics and the succession battle. She told India Today in 2006, “I don’t see myself as my father’s political heir. Only time will tell. Blood is not the only thing that makes political heirs. Everyone says my father is Yashwant Rao Chavan’s political heir. Let’s see if I’m capable enough to inherit my father’s legacy.”
Although the media often tends to focus on the ‘Mahila Mandal’ aspect of Supriya Sule and her MP friends, she is an active and focused parliamentarian, speaking on matters like religious intolerance and triple talaq. Her attendance in Parliament has been exemplary, usually 100 per cent, and recording a below 90 figure – 73 per cent – just once, in the 2014 winter session. She has also piloted 22 private member bills.
Her peers and friends have no doubt about her leadership qualities, sheathed though they are in a handwoven silken glove, as it were.
When a video of BJP MLA Ram Kadam surfaced last year, in which he was seen promising to kidnap women if they refused to marry the men who came with proposals, Supriya Sule lashed out at him.
“You dare touch any girl in Maharashtra and see that you will have to face me,” Sule said.
“She has no pretences with people, she calls a spade a spade, but without ruffling any feathers,” said former Congress MP Sushmita Dev. “At a personal level, she has the ability to keep her political friends close and her political enemies even closer and I say it as a compliment.”
As politics increasingly tires of the masculine ethos of compete-till-you-die, Supriya Sule’s inclusive style, low-key profile, ability to build and maintain relationships, and be as comfortable in a South Mumbai drawing room as in a Baramati field may well re-energise the NCP. And possibly Maharashtra too. But then there’s the other question as well: will the decision to bring Ajit Pawar back into the party come back to haunt the father and daughter?
The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.