Mumbai: In 1978, the Congress (I), comprising supporters of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and a breakaway faction Congress (R), formed a post-poll coalition government in Maharashtra with Vasantdada Patil as the chief minister.
Within months, Sharad Pawar, now chief of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), toppled this government, leaving the Congress (R) with just 44 MLAs.
Pawar swiftly forged an alliance with the Janata Party and its allies, a coalition known as the Progressive Democratic Front (PDF), and took over as chief minister for the first time.
This was quintessential Pawar, a crafty coalition-maker, who always emerged as the leader with the most political capital out of the exercise.
However, 41 years on, several calculations of this political craftsman seem to have gone wrong, perhaps marking the end of his national ambitions. Pawar was, once again, hopeful of pulling off a successful coalition of opposition parties under a ‘mahagathbandhan’ to halt the march of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
It was also seen as his last shot at redeeming all the political capital that he gathered over his five-decade career to get the much-coveted PM post.
But, the BJP’s overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha election and his own party’s rout shattered his hopes completely.
“It is the end of the road now for his national ambitions. He is already 78. Five years down the line he has no future,” said political analyst Prakash Bal.
“I don’t fully believe that he was aiming for the PM’s post while doing what he was doing. But, he would have seized the opportunity to become the PM if a coalition of opposition parties had the chance to form the government,” he added.
What went wrong?
It all started around February-March last year in the run-up to the Lok Sabha election. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government was increasingly battling accusations by the opposition, liberals and even a section of the bureaucracy of running the country in an autocratic manner and weakening democratic institutions.
The Congress was the largest opposition party, but it was also inherently in conflict with a number of regional parties that could have shown hesitance in accepting its leadership in orchestrating a non-BJP front. That’s when Pawar, with his distinct political identity and strong personal relations with politicians across parties, stepped in.
Vilas Muttemwar, a former Congress MP, said, “In parliamentary politics, we have very few people who have been in politics for over 50 years and never lost an election. Pawar saheb had already created a strong image (of himself) in the country’s politics. It was natural (for him) to have PM ambitions.”
“Pawar saheb had good relations with politicians across parties. He was earlier instrumental in getting parties together against the Congress and now the BJP, and historically it is established that if you want to become a PM in a country like India, you don’t necessarily need the majority numbers. But, the results have gone in way that nobody anticipated,” said Muttemwar, who was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1980.
Addressing a press conference after the results were announced on 23 May, Pawar had said, “In certain states such as Andhra Pradesh if people didn’t accept A, they accepted B. They didn’t opt for the BJP. The same thing can be seen in states like Telangana and Odisha…All these efforts were successful in individual states. But, we must accept that the efforts that we made were not successful at the national level.”
The NCP chief added, “We had several meetings and discussions. But, ultimately all our power centres were limited to our respective states and we were not in a position to give each other strength nationally.”
In the blistering heat, 78-year-old Pawar had addressed 78 rallies across Maharashtra. However, despite his best efforts, the party, which was close to getting decimated in 2014 Lok Sabha elections with just four MPs, suffered a drubbing with the same result this election.
The NCP held on to its bastion Baramati, which was Pawar’s constituency contested by his daughter Supriya Sule, but it lost the Maval seat from where Pawar’s grand-nephew Parth Pawar made his electoral debut.
The NCP’s vote share in Maharashtra has also been on the decline since 2009, when it was 19.28 per cent. This election it dipped to 15.5 per cent from 16.12 per cent in 2014 at a time when the party is staring at leadership crisis after Pawar.
NCP Rajya Sabha MP Majeed Memon said, “The NCP chief has called for an introspective meeting of the party on June 1. Despite the massive BJP wave, we managed to stick to our position.”
Memon said Pawar had made it clear that he was not in the race for the PM’s post. “He knew he is heading a small party with presence only in Maharashtra. But, if things had gone as expected and if there were three factions — UPA, NDA and others — with almost equal seats, then he could have led the nation.”
Pawar’s national ambitions
Over 50 years, Pawar had contested 14 elections, all from the Baramati constituency in western Maharashtra, except for one time.
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, his home turf in 1967.
He continued in state politics till 1984 during which he served as the Maharashtra CM for the first time in 1978 as the state’s youngest CM at the age of 38 as part of a coalition government led by his Congress (S).
When he returned to the Congress fold under Indira Gandhi in the mid-1980s, many in the party opposed his re-entry, but he grew to be one of the key leaders, adept at forging alliances and also earned the goodwill of the party high command.
For instance, former PM Chandra Shekhar’s first few visits after assuming office in November 1990 was to Mumbai, then Bombay. During this trip, he spent a few hours at the Maharashtra chief minister’s official residence, Varsha, then occupied by Sharad Pawar. Pawar was, after all, the man who made Chandra Shekhar’s prime ministership possible by arranging the support of Congress (I) for the latter’s breakaway Janata Dal faction after bringing down the V.P. Singh-led government.
As part of the Congress in the 1980s and ’90s, Pawar was widely seen as the prime ministerial candidate and while he was one of the strongest contenders in 1991, after former PM Rajiv Gandhi’s death, the party picked P.V. Narasimha Rao.
In his book, On My Terms: From the Grassroots to the Corridors of Power, Pawar blamed it on Sonia Gandhi, saying she feared his independent mind and thought his election to the PM post would not be good for the Gandhi family.
In 1997, Pawar made a bid at securing the top post in the Congress, but was trumped by Sitaram Kesari.
In 1999, he led a rebellion of a few Congress leaders to form the NCP primarily over the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin, but still forged an alliance with the Congress.
A paper, titled ‘Coalitions in Maharashtra – Political fragmentation or social reconfiguration?’ by authors Suhas Palshikar, Nitin Birmal and Vivek Ghotale equated Pawar’s power in the Congress-NCP alliance to that of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray’s in the Sena-BJP alliance.
“The key factor behind the roles played by either Thackeray or Pawar is their ability to sway the voters and control the electoral apparatus within the respective parties. In this sense, we can say that even after the formation of coalitions, political initiatives remained with these two leaders as far as the state is concerned,” the paper said.
Throughout his political 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.
For instance, as Union agriculture minister Pawar was in regular touch with Modi, who was then the Gujarat chief minister. He also shielded Modi from the Godhra train burning incident while the latter’s name was growing louder for the PM’s post in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Pawar said there was no need for a debate once courts have given their verdict. The NCP chief also raised several eyebrows when he offered outside support to the BJP-led Maharashtra government after the 2014 assembly election when the Shiv Sena was in conflict with the BJP.
Even as it may be the end of the road for Pawar’s PM ambitions, the Congress and NCP leaders believe he remains to be one of the most nationally significant politicians.
“When the Modi government fails to address the issues of farm crisis and unemployment, Pawar saheb will play a big role in holding it accountable,” Muttemwar said.
NCP’s Memon said: “He is a fierce fighter, full of optimism…Sharad Pawar is the last person to call it a day.”
This is an updated version of the report.