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Sharad Pawar: The pragmatic patriarch and perennial politician exits

THE ANNOUNCEMENT by Sharad Govindrao Pawar (82) on Tuesday that he would be resigning as the Nationalist Congress Party president after 24 years of holding the post, since the formation of the party on June 10, 1999 is a testimony of his pragmatic politics. Pawar, who has said he would continue his political and social work in public life, along with travel, has always known where and when to stop in his over five decades of political career. If he sticks to his resignation, this would pave the way for Generation Next to take over the NCP reins, and carve a space for Pawar as a political guide and philosopher in the organisation - a role that he clearly enjoys. A native of Baramati, Pawar had taken a plunge into politics soon after doing his graduation in Commerce from Pune. At the young age of 27, he contested his first MLA election on a Congress ticket from Baramati in 1968, and won. He retained the seat in successive elections till 1990. In 1978, just 10 years after becoming an MLA for the first time, he became the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra at the age of 38. While he would become CM three more times a record for the state - none of his tenures lasted a full five years. While he might have risen from rural Maharashtra, Pawar, a Maratha leader, proved himself a visionary when it came to socio-economic development of the state. His politics was also defined by his ability to earn and sustain goodwill from both ruling and opposition leaders cutting across ideological differences. This proved handy when he moved to Central politics. The Union Defence Minister in the 1991-1996 government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, he held the reins as Leader of the Opposition for the Congress in 1998-1999. As Sonia Gandhi finally joined politics in 1999, persuaded by the Congress ranks, Pawar who held ambitions of rising to the top objected on the grounds of her foreign origins. He was expelled from the Congress, and took along P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar to form the NCP. Within a year, in 2000, the NCP had earned national party recognition, after registering its presence in Maharashtra, Goa, Meghalaya and Manipur. In what might be seen as life coming full circle as Pawar exits a formal NCP role, the party just recently lost its national identity, as well as state party status in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya. Meanwhile, reflective of his pragmatism, the Pawar-led NCP and Congress came together to fight the Assembly elections in Maharashtra together the same year that he parted ways with the Congress, and won. And when the UPA 1 and UPA 2 came to power at the Centre under PM Manmohan Singh in 2004 and 2009, Pawar held the portfolio of Agriculture. This suited the Maratha leader well, agriculture being close to his heart and helping him sustain his rural base. He is credited with ushering in reforms that helped India emerge surplus in foodgrains during this time. Given Pawar's imprint on national as well as state politics above and beyond the NCP's numbers - the Opposition will feel his absence, especially at a time when the BJP is threatening to take over as the principal Maharashtra party as well. Pawar continues to be seen as the one force who can forge together like-minded secular parties against the BJP. In Maharashtra, it was Pawar's proactive role that brought the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena (undivided) together to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government. He remains the glue that holds it together, even as the constituents are straining and the Shiv Sena has split. A senior NCP leader requesting anonymity said, "His decision to resign as party president is still a shock. It is hard to believe." However, the leader added, we take solace in the fact that he will be closely monitoring and guiding us". What the NCP will also take heart from is that its electoral base in Maharashtra remains steadfast. In 1999, in its first Assembly polls, the NCP won 58 seats and 22.60% vote share. The Congress was the largest party, with 75 seats out of 288 and 27.20% votes; the Shiv Sena got 69 seats (17.33% votes) and the BJP 56 (14.54% votes). Five years later, the NCP trumped the Congress to emerge as the single-largest party, bagging 71 seats, though with a lower vote share of 18.75%. Despite this, Pawar let ally Congress have the CM post, and in bargain, got NCP leaders important portfolios such as Home, Finance, Energy, Rural Development, Water Resources. The Congress-NCP coalition government in Maharashtra lasted between 1999 and 2014, till the Modi wave tilted the equations in favour of the BJP. Under the then leadership of Narendra Modi at the Centre and Devendra Fadnavis in Maharashtra, the BJP in 2014 emerged as the largest party with 122 seats. The BJP and Shiv Sena fought separately that year, as did the Congress and the NCP, and the BJP's performance announced its arrival in the state. Then, taking everyone by surprise, the NCP pledged suo motu support to the BJP in Maharashtra, arguing that it wanted to give the state a stable government. Political managers in the NCP insist: "The NCP's support to the BJP was not for power. It was a tactic to avoid a split within the NCP and to keep the Shiv Sena away from the BJP." While the BJP and Sena came together eventually to form a coalition government, the BJP's fishing for other allies at a time when the Sena was vulnerable due to the death of Bal Thackeray did plant seeds of doubt in the Sena's mind. This manifested in 2019, when Uddhav Thackeray broke ties with the BJP and eventually joined the Congress and NCP to form an MVA government. The BJP's rise means the NCP no longer enjoys the pre-eminence it did in Maharashtra, but even in 2019, it got 16.71% of the total votes. But numbers mean little when it comes to Pawar himself. For example, during his heydays as the Union Minister for Agriculture, the NCP strength in the Lok Sabha was in the single digits. It's this fluidity that everyone will have an eye on as Pawar is now even more of a free bird. He isn't bothered by niceties such as not breaking bread with friend Gautam Adani, despite the recent controversy around the business tycoon, or treating BJP leaders such as Fadnavis or Nitin Gadkari or Amit Shah as pariahs, or not expressing his displeasure vocally over Rahul Gandhi's remarks against V D Savarkar (who is a well-regarded figure in Maharashtra), or even taking a stand different from ally Congress on seeking a joint parliamentary committee on the Adani issue. At a time when there is speculation in the air about the NCP looking beyond the MVA, what Pawar does now will again change the direction of the country's politics.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023 at 10:27 am

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