Let me begin with a disclosure. I have always believed Sharad Pawar is one of our most fascinating politicians. To be fully honest, I must also say that I have admired him for many of his qualities and political achievements. I believe, for example, that his suspending his national ambitions and returning to Maharashtra as chief minister after the 1992 post-Babri riots, remains one of the great examples of patriotic commitment and political large-heartedness in our times. In fact, the way he managed to keep Bombay together and totally reprisal-free after the 1993 serial bombings marked his finest hour. That’s why those who have known him as a public figure would be so dismayed by the caricature to which he has diminished himself now.
If you want to understand the political stature or talent of Sharad Pawar, come to Baramati, just a couple of hours of a most pleasant drive from Pune airport. What used to be a barren, dry plateau is now green revolution country. Not merely that, there is ample evidence of a much brighter political mind at work than a mere kulak leader like, say, a Charan Singh. So there is plenty of agro-industry, technical colleges, schools, even buses loaded with computers to serve as mobile classrooms. This is one of India’s genuine feel-good zones. More significantly, you take no time figuring out who is responsible for it. You stop anybody by the roadside, even a diehard Shiv Sena/ BJP voter, and ask who changed the face of Baramati, and they will all say, Sharad Pawar. His constituents treat him as a deity of sorts you can stop by at a village barber shop and find his framed portrait hanging on the wall, along with the local favourite Ganapati.
If Baramati is his proud pocket-borough, and Maharashtra his political home-ground, he, unlike many other regional satraps of his generation, has always had a much wider vision and a truly national ambition. There were occasions in his four-decade career when he would think he came close to prime ministership. Others may disagree, or even call it delusional, as his disastrous challenge of Narasimha Rao in 1991. But the fact is, he was almost always a key factor in any post-1991 arrangement. He had built stature and respect and IOUs, a cross-party network of goodwill no politician has had post Chandra Shekhar, a leader with whom he shared such mutual respect.
What has gone wrong within a year? Why is the man held in awe and respect even by his rivals now being made fun of even by his coalition partners, blamed for price rise, mocked for his intriguing statements on commodity prices and now pilloried for his call on the Thackerays? Of course Pawar must have his reasons, but it is difficult to fight the argument that it was ill-conceived and ill-timed, and would do nothing to re-establish his declining stature in a coalition which saw him as a central pillar until the other day, but where he is now being blamed for price rise, IPL shenanigans and where even junior ministers are walking all over his turf, the agriculture ministry.
So much was expected of him when he took over in the summer of 2004 when agriculture was back in fashion. He was a farmer and moderniser, but even more significantly a political bridge builder and persuader who would succeed in selling the idea of farm sector reform to diverse political groups. But after nearly six years in the job what is his report card?
His critics would say he performed so poorly because he got so distracted by cricket, and its instant fame, glamour, the good life, easy press and quick riches. The man we had counted on to go from state to state with the message of reform to farmers has, on the other hand, been making news for reasons such as being pushed aside by Ricky Ponting, or controlling global cricketing power, for covering up for IPL’s departure last year to South Africa that humiliated India and undermined his own government and now for this pathetic, pathetic call on Thackeray. His supporters say, of course, that the call had nothing to do with IPL, that like an old-fashioned politician (and unlike today’s Congress) he does not believe in political untouchability and it was just a routine conversation. But his timing and judgment were so flawed I can’t resist thinking of it as the political equivalent of a batsman throwing his wicket away with a mindless reverse-sweep when his team needed to play out just a couple of overs to save a game.
The game, sadly, does seem lost for Pawar, at least for now. The biggest challenge facing this government is price rise. He is the minister for agriculture as well as food and civil supplies. And yet the prime minister has had to take over the fight against prices directly. This is almost like Shivraj Patil ceding control over internal security in the middle of UPA-I. The environment minister, who ranks far lower than him in cabinet or political hierarchy, has contemptuously thrown out a pro-science policy Pawar has supported. His is no longer the voice in national politics it used to be. That is a fact a realist like Pawar can’t deny when he looks at his own sorry plight: he even sat quietly as his cabinet decided to dismiss his own party’s government in Meghalaya last year. This is not the Pawar we have known, and this is certainly not the Pawar Baramati and Maharashtra sent with such hopes to Delhi.
So where did Pawar lose the plot? It is tempting to blame it all on his cricketing distraction. But that will be unfair to a wonderful sport, and our national obsession. Also because Pawar’s own record in national politics shows that he has continued to falter on the political big stage, unable to bring to bear the skills and panache he displays in state politics. A case of stage fright, almost like a batsman who piles up mountains of runs in Ranji Trophy, but fails at the international level. And politically, he makes mistakes of timing, as he did in rebelling against Rajiv, Rao and then Sonia, or in half-hearted temptation, as he did in the middle of the 2009 election campaign. It is easy to say that like Mayawati he also got the Prakash Karat kiss of death, but the fact is, he got tempted to appear in a Left-led third front rally in Orissa within days of appearing in a rally with Sonia in Maharashtra. He had misread the campaigns and taken the third front bait that he could be a compromise candidate in a truly messy Parliament. This is when Pranab Mukherjee made what I consider the most brilliantly devastating understatement of that election: Pawar always gives mixed signals.
Of the many times I have met Pawar, I particularly remember the wedding of the then Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s son Amit in February, 2008. Pawar introduced a couple of his party’s ministers in the state cabinet to me and when I noted they were so young (still in their thirties), he said so very proudly that his party was full of young leaders, and pointed out so many of them right there. That one moment underlined his leadership qualities and large-heartedness as well as his success in Baramati or his stewardship of his state post-1992 riots does. That is why the current state of his politics, from that farcical, smiling photo-op at Thackeray’s home, to the prime minister taking over the price situation, Jairam Ramesh overruling him on Bt seeds, marks such a self-inflicted decline in power. Maybe Pawar has been eyeing the world of cricket as a post-political default career option. But he is smart enough to know that if his politics declines, so will his hold over cricket. Too many Congressmen with cricketing ambitions have been sharpening the knives for too long already.