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In run-up to 2019, Sharad Pawar wants to be the conductor for opposition harmony

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For someone once touted as a PM candidate, this might be the last roll of the dice for 77-year-old Pawar in terms of being politically important in New Delhi.

Mumbai: As opposition parties mull joining hands against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the 2019 polls, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar could be looking to play the role of a key interlocutor in shaping such a platform.

Pawar shares cordial relations with most regional parties, many of which are in direct competition with the Congress in their respective states. Being the rallying point between the parties could perhaps also give the 77-year-old leader a last shot at a significant political role at the Centre post-2019, say senior politicians and analysts.

With this in mind, Pawar plans to host a meeting of opposition parties at his New Delhi residence on 27 March, following Congress leader Sonia Gandhi’s dinner for opposition party leaders earlier this month.

NCP sources said Pawar took the initiative after Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee sought a meeting with him.

Last week, Congress president Rahul Gandhi met Pawar soon after the BJP’s defeat in the Lok Sabha bypolls in Gorakhpur and Phulpur, Uttar Pradesh, at the hands of Samajwadi Party candidates supported by arch-rival Bahujan Samaj Party.

Later, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray too met the NCP chief. While people close to both leaders said it was a non-political courtesy call, the meeting was seen as significant as a day later, Thackeray in his speech at a Mumbai rally called for all political parties to come together for a ‘Modi-mukt’ India.

Potential role

Pawar has over 50 years of experience in electoral politics, winning his first election to the Maharashtra legislature in 1967 from his home turf of Baramati on a Congress ticket. He has served as the chief minister of Maharashtra on three occasions — the first being in 1978 when he toppled the Congress government to join hands with the opposition, create a coalition, and become the youngest CM at the age of 38.

Pawar returned to the Congress fold in 1986 and parted ways again in 1999 to form the NCP. Throughout his career, he is known to have maintained smooth relations with politicians across parties, something that showed at his 75th birthday celebrations in Delhi and Mumbai when a wide spectrum of leaders shared the stage, singing his praises.

While the Congress is the largest opposition party, it has inherently been in conflict with a number of regional parties, which may be hesitant to accept the Congress’s lead in orchestrating a non-BJP platform. However, Pawar, with his distinct political identity and strong personal relations with politicians across parties, has a better chance of reaching out to them at a time when the Congress and NCP, which broke their alliance ahead of the 2014 Maharashtra assembly polls, are also in the process of hammering out a reconciliation.

Internal and external voices in favour

Hemant Takle, NCP state treasurer and a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council, said there is a fear factor about the BJP’s brand of politics, with questions being raised about its influence on all aspects of democracy, including the judiciary and the media.

Majeed Memon, Rajya Sabha MP from the NCP, said looking at the widespread discontent, all non-BJP political parties have made up their minds to come together to oust the BJP, and Pawar and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi are playing a pivotal role in this.

“Primarily, Pawar has the ability, capacity, wisdom, and maturity to persuade opposition parties to come together to make a strong force to fight and defeat the BJP in 2019,” Memon said.

Prakash Bal, a Mumbai-based political commentator, said: “Congress has realised that Pawar is a person who can rope in anti-BJP forces. As of today, Pawar is likely to play a crucial role in creating a loose coalition of sorts. Whether it works remains to be seen.”

There are parties such as the MNS with whom the Congress will never openly enter into an alliance, but will benefit from a common understanding — achieved through Pawar’s relations with Thackeray.

A senior Maharashtra Congress leader who did not wish to be named, said: “There are parties that are like-minded and those that aren’t, but there are options of a practical coalition. An alliance with the MNS is a strict no-no for us because of the party’s attitude towards north Indians, but there can be a common understanding among leaders. It is all about the contours of such an anti-BJP consolidation.”

Takle, meanwhile, said: “All secular parties need to come together to fight it. Yes, parties like the MNS do not exactly match our ideology, but there will be a spectrum of political parties wanting to defeat the BJP, and a party like MNS can be at one end of the spectrum.”

Party sources also said an understanding between the MNS and the NCP can help the latter gain strength in Mumbai, where it has a poor standing, and where Thackeray’s party, though weak electorally, can attract massive crowds.

Memon said forces close to the BJP were hampering the effort by raising questions of how Pawar will agree to work with Rahul Gandhi, and who will lead such a front.

“On the very first day of its plenary session, Congress specified that it is not the first opposition party, but one among the opposition parties. Also, though Rahul Gandhi is the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi continues to be the chairperson of the UPA and it is her that Pawar will have to work with,” Memon said, adding that the question of leadership did not arise at this juncture as it would be guided by the democratic principle of the election outcome.

What Pawar hopes to gain

As part of the Congress in the 1980s and 90s, Pawar was widely seen as a 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, Pawar blamed it on Sonia Gandhi, saying she feared his independent mind and thought his election to the post would not be good for the first family.

Twenty-seven years after the missed opportunity, the PM’s post has continued to elude Pawar, and political observers say 2019 could very well be the last opportunity for the septuagenarian.

Political analyst Surendra Jondhale said Pawar is aware that he cannot have the political ambition to be PM with just a handful of MPs from the NCP, but if the plan to bring opposition parties together works, he will have political capital as the architect of such an alliance.

“Pawar’s calculation must be that after 2019 elections, there could be some kind of a politically fluid situation, and opposition parties might accept his leadership. With him being the rallying point for all opposition parties, he will have better bargaining power with the Congress,” Jondhale said.

The NCP is also likely to face an existential crisis after Pawar, with there being no undisputed second line of leadership, and such political equity will help him secure his party’s position.

A senior Congress leader said: “Pawar knows that he has the most at stake. He is eyeing the position of a convenor of the potential alliance. Our party president calling on him sent a negative message for the Congress. A meeting could have happened and been arranged anywhere, but at the end of the day, optics are also very important. Pawar’s role will be interesting and crucial.”

What the BJP thinks of this grand design

The BJP, on the other hand, is confident that the scramble for an all-party alliance will not amount to much, irrespective of Pawar’s involvement.

BJP MP Rakesh Singh, co-in charge of the state’s Maharashtra unit, said: “Trying to put up a consolidated fight is an old attempt of the regional opposition parties. Earlier, they would talk of consolidating against the Congress. Now, it is against the BJP.

“The only difference is that when it was against the Congress, the need for consolidation was driven by issues such as corruption and lack of development. The sentiment to consolidate against the BJP comes from insecurity within these parties, as the BJP is aggressively expanding in all states across the country.”

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  1. The NCP’s tally for Lok Sabha elections held in 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014 was 6,9,8 and 4. In the Maharashtra state assembly, it has 41 out of 288 seats. Compare this with Ms. Mamata Banerjee’s contingent of 34 Lok Sabha MPs and her sweep in the state assembly. The lady is a lot younger, and the minorities trust her. She too would like to unfurl the national flag at the Red Fort next year. 2. The Congress, above all, would not like the incumbent to get a second term. So would many regional parties, for whom the magnificent sweep of the BJP poses an existential threat. No one needs to be persuaded by Mr Pawar of the need to unite against the dominant political formation. See how the BSP and the SP have overcome their legendary incompatibility. 3. While the Congress may be willing to concede the top post if it barely crawls into three figures, above 120, it will not budge. There is also a lot of history between the Gandhi family and Mr Pawar. They may not welcome a spoiler’s act when, after the total eclipse of 2014, they smell power in the shape of UPA III. In Maharashtra, the Congress and the NCP have a fighting chance to return to power in October 2019, a certainty, in fact, if the Shiv Sena stays with its resolve to fight on its own. Mr Pawar would want to set his house in order in 2019, as the NCP readies for generational transition. All that would be imperilled if he makes a bid for the top job.

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