Mumbai: “Are you the remote control or the headmaster of the Maharashtra government?” Shiv Sena’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut asked Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar in a July interview for his party’s mouthpiece Saamana, of which Raut is the executive editor.
Pawar promptly answered: “I am neither.”
If headmaster, I would have had to be part of the school. And in a democracy, there is no concept of a remote control, he said.
Neither Raut nor Pawar offered another alternative description that might be apt for what Pawar means to the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government in Maharashtra. But there is unanimous consensus among political watchers that the three-party government was not only formed on the NCP chief’s will, but also hinges on it.
With the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government completing a year in office Saturday, there has been a phenomenal growth in Sharad Pawar’s already massive political clout, and that in turn has breathed new life into the beleaguered NCP.
‘Margdarshak, troubleshooter, guiding force’
In November last year, No. 2, Silver Oak, Pawar’s quaint bungalow at the upmarket Bhulabhai Desai Road in south Mumbai, had become a constant hangout for Mumbai-based political journalists, because the assembly elections threw up a hung house, and all parties were trying to cobble together an alliance.
Pawar was seen as the architect of the MVA, playing a role that has always been his forte — being a key interlocutor, creating seemingly difficult coalitions, and always emerging as the leader with the most political capital from the exercise.
Political commentator Prakash Bal told ThePrint: “The government is functioning only because of Pawar. He is the driving force behind this government. He wants to show this as a successful experiment against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The longer this government lasts, the more the BJP squirms.”
In the July interview with Raut, Pawar had indeed termed the MVA as a “successful experiment”. He had tried to orchestrate a similar arrangement at the Centre prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, being a leader who shares cordial relations with most regional parties as well as political adversaries. However, the BJP’s overwhelming majority in the polls and the NCP’s defeat in 15 out of 19 constituencies in its home state (as part of the UPA with the Congress) shattered his hopes as well as his national ambitions.
Pawar, who will turn 80 on 12 December, has regularly held meetings with Chief Minister and Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray through the first year of the government. One of these meetings in July was regarding differences of opinion within the coalition about the lockdown, and ministers’ complaints about the CM relying a bit too much on the bureaucracy.
Bal said: “In the MVA, Pawar is the guiding force. He steps in whenever there is a crisis and resolves it. This is why there haven’t been any major policy issues in the MVA. For example, he stepped in when there were complaints from ministers about the bureaucracy getting stronger during the lockdown.”
Housing Minister Jitendra Awhad of the NCP said Pawar is a “father figure” to the MVA government.
“He is the government’s margdarshak (guide) on a day-to-day basis. It is a very important role to play because it is a tricky alliance. Whenever there are any issues, he sorts them out. And considering that he is the father of the whole family, a lot of things depend on him, his will and his ideology,” Awhad said.
A Shiv Sena MLA who used to be with the NCP, said requesting anonymity: “This government is going on today because of his experience and understanding, and his principle of not straining a relation till it is at the brink of breaking. He is a very ‘chatur’ (clever) politician. He can sense where the wind blows and change his direction accordingly.”
For decades, Pawar has been a politician that no one — neither in Maharashtra nor at the national level — could afford to ignore. But his clout had been dented after successive defeats.
The 2014 Lok Sabha and Maharashtra assembly polls were hard on the NCP, with the party’s strength having been decimated to four MPs and 41 MLAs respectively. In 2019, not only did the NCP president’s attempt to stitch an opposition alliance against Modi fail, but the NCP’s drubbing continued with another haul of just four seats, despite Pawar addressing 78 rallies across the state.
This also marked the end of the road for Pawar’s ambitions to play a key role at the Centre.
But the 2019 assembly election came as the turning point — Pawar’s political equity swelled when the NCP became the only party to better its 2014 performance, winning 54 seats. Pawar then 78, singlehandedly carried the campaign on his shoulders in the face of massive defections, a demoralised cadre and allegations of corruption, including an Enforcement Directorate (ED) inquiry.
The ED’s September 2019 case of alleged money laundering against Pawar, his nephew (now Deputy CM) Ajit Pawar and about 70 others from across parties, in connection with irregularities in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank, was a watershed moment for the senior politician.
While all others against whom the case was registered were either directors or functionaries of the bank until 2011, Sharad Pawar had no direct connection with the bank or the case, making it look like the ruling BJP was deliberately targeting the Maratha strongman less than a month before the assembly elections. The NCP cadre hit the streets in his support, and the move earned Pawar a lot of sympathy from the youth, especially in his bastion of western Maharashtra, dominated by the Maratha community.
Political analyst Pratap Asbe said: “Now, Sharad Pawar is not just back to where he was, but he is stronger than ever in the state. Yet, he is no remote control; he dislikes the system.
“He doesn’t do any backseat driving or micro-managing, gives a free hand to his ministers, but has strong opinions on policies, which he voices from time to time. This is what he has been doing in the MVA government too, and that is the main reason why he enjoys the clout and respect that he does.”
Asbe pointed out that whenever there have been any differences between CM Thackeray and Pawar, it is mostly the former who has prevailed.
For instance, Pawar didn’t want to extend the lockdown beyond June due to concerns over economic distress, and wanted the state to open up faster, but Thackeray wanted a more cautious approach. In the end, the CM had his way.
The NCP was formed when Pawar and other senior Congress leaders P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar broke away in 1999, but soon, it allied with the parent party. They ruled Maharashtra together for the next 10 years, but the NCP began losing its hold on its home turf in 2009.
Senior leaders such as Ajit Pawar, Sunil Tatkare, Praful Patel and Chhagan Bhujbal have battled severe corruption allegations, levelled by the BJP when it was in opposition, and they have severely tarnished the party’s reputation.
In the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha and assembly polls, the BJP and Shiv Sena virtually left the NCP bereft of senior leadership by inducting key leaders such as Jaidutt Kshirsagar, Sachin Ahir, Bhaskar Jadhav, Dhananjay Mahadik, Udayanraje Bhosale, Ganesh Naik, Madhukar Pichad and many others.
However, being part of a government with Sharad Pawar as its guardian, and his own constant efforts to use the opportunity for the party’s growth, have galvanised the NCP cadre. Moreover, the foiled attempt by the BJP to form a government with the NCP after repeatedly calling out its senior leadership for “corruption” also returned some heft to the NCP.
An NCP MLA who did not wish to be named said: “The BJP had put the NCP on the back foot by constantly attacking our leaders for corruption. We were just seen giving explanations, which the BJP would then scoff at as false. Pawar saheb showed political astuteness in allying with the Shiv Sena and bringing power back to the NCP, and he is fully using the opportunity to grow the party.”
The MLA said Pawar has allocated days to every NCP minister to sit in the party office and hold “janta durbars” (public meetings), and visit various districts frequently. “He himself has been touring Maharashtra despite the pandemic and his vulnerability to it due to age,” he said.
Political analyst Asbe added that the NCP has benefitted from the MVA, as it is seen as an equal partner of the Shiv Sena — it has 54 seats, while Uddhav Thackeray’s party has 56.
“The Shiv Sena has a major experience deficit. That is filled by the NCP and Pawar,” he said.
Succession question remains
The pressing question about the NCP’s future in a post-Pawar era, however, remains unanswered. There is still a lack of clarity on who the NCP’s head is likely to be — his daughter Supriya Sule, his nephew Ajit Pawar or, in an unlikely situation, a non-Pawar leader.
But political analyst Bal said that is “an internal issue of contradictions and tensions”.
“For now, Pawar has at least stabilised the external uncertainties for the NCP by being the kingmaker of the alliance, by getting his party power and a political future,” he said.