Mumbai: Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar had described himself last year as the lone interlocutor between the former Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre and Narendra Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat.
Today, he is playing the same role, but in a different political setting.
Amid a deep chasm between the Modi-led NDA government at the Centre and the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra, Pawar has emerged as the lone intermediary who has an open channel of communication with the prime minister, which he uses to the MVA’s political advantage from time to time.
The most recent instance of this was the NCP president’s meeting with Modi in the latter’s Parliament office for 25 minutes last week. The octogenarian raised concerns such as Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari sitting on a proposal to nominate 12 MLCs, and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) attaching Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut’s assets.
Political watchers say the meeting helped send a message to the BJP leadership in Maharashtra, which has been shrill in targeting MVA leaders over ongoing inquiries by central agencies, to tone down the criticism.
The NCP shares power with the Shiv Sena and the Congress in Maharashtra as part of the MVA government that was formed after the 2019 state elections.
Political commentator Hemant Desai told ThePrint: “The political situation in Maharashtra and the relationship between the ruling and opposition parties are deteriorating. Pawar perhaps wanted to send a signal to BJP leaders in Maharashtra to put an end to this dirty political conflict by showing that he has a regular network with Modi.”
“Overall, one can see that the BJP is trying to close in on the MVA, especially the Shiv Sena leadership, going by the various central agency probes. If that is to be countered, the ultimate card is to go to Modi,” he added.
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Open lines of communication
Modi and Pawar’s relationship has fluctuated between hot and cold, between extreme praise and extreme criticism, according to the changing poll seasons, but their line of communication has always remained open.
This does not seem to have changed even after Pawar orchestrated the coming together of the MVA to form a government in Maharashtra in 2019, despite the BJP having emerged as the single-largest party short of a majority.
Senior NCP leader Majeed Memon, a former Rajya Sabha MP, told ThePrint that Pawar and Modi are two tall leaders in their own right, and nothing about their relationship can be extrapolated to the relationship between the NCP and BJP.
“In politics, you have your party ideology from which you certainly don’t part from. Modi and Pawar are both tall national leaders, they can always meet and discuss various issues touching the people of India. Nothing should be read into it politically. In fact, Pawar has expressly denied any possibility of the NCP ever supporting the BJP,” Memon said.
“It is not that there is any special channel of communication between them. Modi is available for people to meet if the cause is worth it,” he added.
Modi has gone on record to praise Pawar’s “positive politics” in a Rajya Sabha speech, while Pawar has described the PM as someone who puts in a lot of hard work and takes tasks to their logical conclusion.
The NCP chief, who is known to be on good terms with leaders across parties, whether they are his political allies or adversaries, is now perhaps the only opposition leader who has Modi’s ear.
Pawar-Modi ties post MVA
Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Priyanka Chaturvedi told ThePrint, “No one should look at Pawar saheb as someone from an opposition party. He is an institution in himself. His channel of communication with any PM will always take precedence over the party the PM belongs to. It is because of his sheer experience, his political tenure.”
“It always helps that there is someone who can put the point of view of the opposition across when the time comes, and he has always risen to the occasion irrespective of the political speculation that follows,” she added.
Since the formation of the MVA, Pawar has known which buttons to press and how to work within the system — when to be aggressive and when to tone down his criticism.
An NCP leader who did not wish to be named told ThePrint, “In 2020, Pawar did not aggressively criticise the Centre on issues such as its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic or the stalemate with China in the Galwan Valley.”
“The state’s finances were in a precarious condition, and the Maharashtra government wanted the Centre to release its share of compensation for the Goods and Services Tax (GST), something that the CM (Uddhav Thackeray) and deputy CM (Ajit Pawar) were also aggressively pushing for,” added the leader.
Pawar had two meetings with Modi via videoconferencing that year in April and June, one on the pandemic and the other on the Galwan Valley stalemate, and in at least one of them he raised the issue of pending GST dues to Maharashtra.
In May 2020, he also wrote to Modi slamming the Centre’s decision to shift the International Financial Services Centre to Gujarat instead of giving the tag to Mumbai, highlighting how much Maharashtra and Mumbai contribute to the Centre in terms of banking sector deposits.
In October that year, amid a proxy war between the MVA and Governor Koshyari over reopening places of worship, particularly temples, in Maharashtra post the lockdown, Pawar had taken the issue to Modi.
In a letter, he raised strong objections over Koshyari’s letter to CM Thackeray questioning his Hindutva credentials and asking the Shiv Sena president if he had become secular.
After the MVA’s formation, Pawar first met Modi in person in July 2021, spending 50 minutes with the PM, amid concerns that the Union government’s Amit Shah-led cooperation ministry would turn Maharashtra’s cooperative sector into a turf war between the BJP on one side and the NCP and the Congress on the other.
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Friends and foes
Pawar has himself spoken about how he was the only Union minister in the former UPA government who could hold conversations with Modi, a stringent critic of the Manmohan Singh-led government, and who would visit Gujarat multiple times at the state government’s request.
In 2014, Pawar took political-watchers by surprise by offering the BJP outside support to form a government in Maharashtra after the Assembly polls. Nearly six years later, in an interview with Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamana, Pawar clarified that the move was mainly to keep the Shiv Sena away from the BJP, rather than to bring the NCP and BJP closer.
Modi too raised eyebrows when in 2015, barely four months after campaigning against the NCP in Maharashtra’s Baramati and asking people to free themselves from Pawar rule, he shared the stage with the NCP chief on his home turf at a foundation stone-laying ceremony for a vegetable production centre there. He praised Pawar as a repository of experience, and said it was his responsibility to be in touch with the NCP chief for advice.
The following year, congratulating Pawar on completing 50 years in politics, Modi said the NCP chief had hand-held him during his early days in politics.
By the time of the 2019 Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly polls, the two leaders were back to being rival campaigners for their parties. In a campaign rally at Daund in Pune district ahead of the Lok Sabha election, Pawar said he would never let anyone hold his hand again for fear of creating another Modi.
But by the end of the year, as alliances scrambled to try to put together a government following a hung verdict in the Maharashtra Assembly election, Modi and Pawar were behind closed doors again, supposedly to discuss farmers’ distress in the state.
Eight days later, the MVA government was sworn in.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)
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