Mumbai: Since 2014, nobody has succeeded in coming close to challenging BJP president Amit Shah in being the ultimate political mastermind. In the last 96 hours, however, it has taken just one man to change that perception and make people question what seemed to have become an established notion.
Sharad Pawar — the grand old man of Maharashtra politics — has shown why he remains among the most astute and perceptive politicians India has seen, with a fascinating quality of being able to prevail over friends and foes alike, and in the latest instance, family.
On Saturday morning, it seemed like everything was over for the clumsy Shiv Sena-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-Congress combine that was trying to form government in Maharashtra, burying decades of ideological and political differences.
As BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis took oath as chief minister in the early hours of Saturday, pulling off a coup by bringing NCP leader and Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar to his side of the fence, many wondered how the veteran politician could have been outfoxed with such ease. Clearly, that was not to be.
By Tuesday, Sharad Pawar had dashed BJP’s dream to rule Maharashtra again. Angry at being betrayed by his ambitious nephew, the leader swung into action to prove he remains a strategist-politician to reckon with.
What clearly helps Pawar is his more than five decades’ run in politics — witnessing a generous mix of ups and downs, which included breaking away from an established party such as the Congress to float his own regional outfit from scratch.
The reverse ‘coup’ in Maharashtra
By the end of the three-day political drama, when Ajit resigned as the deputy chief minister, his uncle’s machinations had ensured the only route forward was towards a political sanyas. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis too had to resign citing a lack of numbers. As he left Raj Bhavan after submitting his resignation to Governor B.S. Koshyari, his vociferous over-dramatised chant “Mee Punha Yenaar (I will come back)” faded with him.
Serving a masterstroke that the BJP is unlikely to forget in a hurry, Pawar showed his opponents that he is the ultimate word in Maharashtra. Within 80 hours of taking oath as the deputy chief minister, Ajit’s uncle unmasked his ambition by making him switch sides twice in three days.
The wily uncle used Ajit, the man who had given the BJP hope to establish a government in Maharshtra, to destroy those very dreams.
Though the BJP through statements of its leaders tried to cast aspersions on the credibility of the NCP chief, in reality it is the veteran politician who had them completely foxed. Today, the clean image of Fadnavis has been dented and he is seen as a power hungry politician who will stop at nothing for the CM’s chair.
In the last three days the veteran politician did not speak much but his deft moves discredited his nephew and have projected him as someone who is untrustworthy.
The ‘master strategist’
Those who know Pawar say he is a silent worker. His shrewdness has become a subject of drawing room humour. “His left brain does not know what the right brain is doing” and “his brain can defeat any computer” are the popular whispers that cause much mirth.
The master strategist has, by distancing his nephew, put to rest the succession plan of his party. With talk of Ajit embarking on a political sanyas, the way is now clear for daughter Supriya Sule to take over when her father retires from active party affairs.
While everyone chided Sharad Pawar for not suspending his nephew from the NCP after the Saturday coup, the senior leader had other plans up his sleeve. Jayant Patil was elected as the new leader of the NCP Legislative Party in place of Ajit, against whom no action for anti-party activities was taken either. While Ajit continues to be a member of the NCP sans any position, his uncle has ensured he has no bargaining power left in the party.
“Understanding Sharad Pawar is not possible in one lifetime. It will take many rebirths to fathom him. The BJP misread him. He is the ultimate strategist,” said Sanjay Raut, Shiv Sena’s front man who was the liaison with the other parties in the power sharing talks.
Cutting across party divide, Pawar’s networking skills are legendary. His friendships span across domestic and international boundaries and are closely guarded.
Those who know him point out that he has a photographic memory — he rarely forgets any incident or a name.
During a rally by farmers in Pune some years ago, many in the state remember, a farmer stood up and asked Pawar a question. The leader looked at the man for some time and then told him the village he belonged to. The man was shocked and could only mumble in the affirmative. Pawar then told the audience that during a visit to a village, that farmer had given the leader a meal of bhakri and raw onions. Soon, he even called out to the farmer by his name.
Pawar is also a man who never forgets an insult or a slight. Though he has jumped parties and sided with opponents to reach his goal, people close to him believe, Pawar will never forget or forgive his nephew for his Saturday morning actions. They say Ajit will eventually discover the consequences of his foolhardy dash into the BJP camp, and his uncle will ensure not many doors stay open for him in the future.
The mass leader’s journey
A four-time chief minister of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar is considered to be a friend of the farmers. His work in bringing in a culture of building percolation tanks in the rural areas to strengthen the groundwater levels has found many takers. In fact, he has been instrumental in bringing in the Israeli agricultural methods to Maharashtra which had helped enhance produce.
He has also held the defence and agriculture portfolios at the Centre.
The NCP chief’s political career has been peppered with much drama and breakups. In 1977, when Indira Gandhi broke up the Congress into Congress (I) and Congress (U), Pawar chose to go with his mentor Yeshwantrao Chavan to the Congress (U).
Chavan, the first chief minister of Maharashtra and the fifth deputy Prime Minister of India, was one of the most powerful politicians in Maharashtra. Pawar has on numerous occasions admitted to the impact Chavan had on him.
In 1978, Pawar quit Congress (U) and formed a coalition government — the Democratic Progressive Government — with the Janata Party. At 38, he became the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra. His return to the Congress (I) in 1987 is considered to be the turning point for the Shiv Sena. His closeness to Bal Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena, saw the saffron party grow by leaps.
Seen as a leader who delivered, the first blow to his image came from G.R. Khairnar in 1993. The then deputy commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Khairnar levelled serious charges against Pawar, alleging that he was protecting criminals and involved in corrupt practices.
Khairnar could not substantiate his claims but Pawar’s popularity was shaken.
Then came the allegations of well-known corruption crusader Anna Hazare, whose 11-day fast-unto-death demanding the dismissal of 12 officers of the Maharashtra forest department for corruption dealt a further blow to Pawar’s image.
In June 1999, Pawar once again broke away from the Congress questioning Sonia Gandhi’s foreign antecedents and her suitability to become the prime minister. Demanding that a native-born should be holding that position, Pawar along with two other Congressmen — P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar — established the NCP.
A few months later, after the Maharashtra assembly polls of that year, however, Pawar’s NCP aligned with the Congress to form a coalition government in the state. He later supported the tie-up citing regional compulsions.
Despite numerous charges of corruption levelled against him from various quarters, the veteran leader has always walked away unscathed. He has filed defamation cases against his accusers and ensured that the loud voices became whispers.
A member of the Rajya Sabha, he was in 2017 conferred with the Padma Vibhushan by PM Narendra Modi.
Pawar’s other innings
Spreading his wings across various spectra, Pawar forayed into cricket and was elected the chairman of the powerful and cash-rich BCCI in 2005, a post he held until 2008. In 2010, he took over as the president of the International Cricket Association (ICC) and held on to the post until 2012.
In 2015, he was re-elected as the president of the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA).
According to sources, he has a very powerful hold over various cricket associations across the country.
Pawar has also been in the forefront of popularising Indian sports. He is the president of Maharashtra Wrestling Association. During the campaign for the 2019 Maharashtra polls, then CM Devendra Fadnavis would be at his comic best narrating that there were no powerful opponents to wrestle with.
Pawar effectively silenced Fadnavis by reminding him that the former headed the Maharashtra Wrestling Association. Interestingly, Fadnavis stopped making the “wrestling” remarks thereafter.