Mumbai: Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Sharad Pawar addressed 78 rallies across Maharashtra. However, when the Modi government returned with a thumping majority and his NCP managed to get just four MPs elected from the state, many called it the end of the road for the forever PM-aspirant, at least in national politics.
NCP’s Rajya Sabha MP Majeed Memon had then pointedly told ThePrint, “He is a fierce fighter, full of optimism…Sharad Pawar is the last person to call it a day.”
Sure enough, when the Maharashtra assembly elections arrived six months later, the septuagenarian once again hit the ground, addressing 60 rallies, nearly as many as 49-year-old CM Devendra Fadnavis, and literally single-handedly carried the opposition’s campaign on his shoulders.
There was one defining image of the NCP chief this election. The 78-year-old leader standing on the dais, delivering a campaign address in Satara drenched in heavy rain.
He refused to leave the address mid-way, as the gathered crowd too stayed put, getting soaked in the downpour. Pawar’s “fighting spirit” became a talking point all over the state’s political circles and on social media.
The Pawar magic
Pawar’s “fighting spirit” seems to have helped the NCP not just stay afloat, but thrive this time, with the party on its way to improving its 2014 tally of 41 seats. Trends at 1 pm showed the NCP leading in 56 of Maharashtra’s 288 seats despite being hamstrung by several of its senior leaders defecting to the saffron parties. The party contested 117 seats. In 2009, the party won 62 seats, while its tally in 2004 was 71.
This election, most of the NCP’s gains seem to be coming from the Pawar bastion of Western Maharashtra, where the party has taken a lead in 26 of the region’s 28 seats. In the 2014 election, the party was able to win just 16 seats from this region.
There was a significant sympathy wave for Pawar in his bastion that helped his campaign. In the NCP chief’s turf, there was a perception that the hardworking and well-respected senior leader was being targeted by the ruling parties with the constant poaching from the NCP and the Enforcement Directorate’s case against him in connection with the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam case.
However, while Pawar may have carried the NCP’s fortunes this election, the going may be tough for the party five years down the line, and there are questions once again on whether this does mark the end of the road of Pawar’s active political journey.
Uncertainty over NCP’s future
Pawar, who celebrates his 79th birthday on 12 December, will be nearly 84 in the 2024 election and may not be in a position to exhibit the same zest as he did in campaigning for this election.
There is still a lack of clarity on who the NCP’s second-in-command is likely to be — his daughter Supriya Sule, his nephew Ajit Pawar or, in an unlikely situation, a non-Pawar leader.
Meanwhile, the BJP and Shiv Sena have virtually left the party bereft of a senior leadership by inducting NCP leaders such as Jaidutt Kshirsagar, Sachin Ahir, Bhaskar Jadhav, Dhananjay Mahadik, Udayanraje Bhosale, Ganesh Naik, Madhukar Pichad and so on.
Moreover, senior leaders such as Ajit Pawar, Sunil Tatkare, Chhagan Bhujbal and Praful Patel are all under the scanner of investigative agencies for some or the other case.
“The NCP really needs to introspect about its longer-term prospects,” political commentator Prakash Bal said.
“There is no second rung of leadership ready. Five years down the line it will be difficult for Sharad Pawar to travel so extensively and campaign. Neither Supriya Sule nor Ajit Pawar are yet politically ready to take on the mantle and as of today there is no non-Pawar leader either on the horizon.”
He added, it is essential to revive the Congress in Maharashtra and merge the NCP. “What Sushilkumar Shinde said was absolutely right,” Bal said.
During a campaign rally at Solapur, former Congress CM Shinde said the two parties should come together, adding they belong to the same ideological tree and both are now tired. The NCP president implicitly shot down any suggestions of such a merger.
The Pawar era in Maharashtra politics
Over 50 years, Pawar had contested 14 elections, all from the Baramati constituency in Western Maharashtra, except for one time, and emerged victorious in each and every one of them.
His half-century innings in electoral politics began when Pawar, known to be the protégé of Maharashtra’s first CM Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan, won the state assembly election from Baramati in 1967. He became the Maharashtra CM on four occasions, the first being in 1978 as the state’s youngest CM at the age of 38 as part of a coalition government led by his Congress (S).
The Pawar era brought several dimensions to Maharashtra politics, especially a brand of coalition politics in which he swiftly played the role of a key interlocutor and always emerged as the leader with the most political capital.
Throughout his journey, Pawar kept the channels of communication open with even political adversaries, making it possible for him to fluidly breakaway from the Congress and later return to it, rebel from the Congress to form his own party and still ally with it, and even taking the BJP in his PDF coalition in 1985 to later forming alliances against the party to keep it out of power.
Till date, the leader, who formed NCP in 1999, is known as one of the few Maharashtra politicians with a deep mass connect, and also one who organised the fractured Maratha votes under the NCP in the regions of Western Maharashtra and Marathwada.
Pawar’s over five-decade long stint in Maharashtra politics is also notorious for his ability to engineer defections. The first time he became CM was by toppling the Vasantdada Patil-led government in Maharashtra.
But, with the large-scale defections from the NCP ahead of this assembly poll, it seems that Pawar was bested at his own game this time, which he overcame with his charisma. But this charisma alone may not be able to sustain the NCP longer term.