Battle-scarred, not battle-fatigued: Sharad Pawar still matters in politics

Sharad Pawar
“Only one leader knows the nitty-gritty of the politics of Maharashtra. And that is Sharad Pawar. He knows who the candidates of not only the Congress but all the opponents in the Assembly polls could be, and can plan his strategy likewise” — this is what the late Pramod Mahajan, a BJP leader who became a Union minister in the Vajpayee government, said more than 30 years ago.


However, the times have changed. Pawar, who at 30 became the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra in 1978, will have to do a lot of heavy-lifting in the Assembly polls in the state, due by October, after severe setbacks in the Lok Sabha polls.


The opposition, led by Pawar, was decimated as the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, showed its success in the 2014 polls was not a flash in the pan. The emergence of the Prakash Ambedkar-led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi was more than a spoiler for the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance and, in effect, benefited the BJP-Shiv Sena. This time too, Ambedkar, a known detractor of Pawar, appears set to go his own way.


Pawar is on the job. When elections come, he is a man possessed. Besides visiting drought-hit villages, he is running himself into the ground to let people, especially in rural areas, know that he is the leader at hand, as always. He is motivating party workers to work hard, telling them how to learn from the RSS, which he opposes ideologically, on how to reach out to the people.


He is trying to connect with the youth on Facebook Live. Right or wrong, he feels that social media has helped Modi and the BJP to spread their message without doing much work on the ground.


The Assembly polls have, in fact, become a make-or-break test for the battle-scarred veteran at a time when the dominant Maratha community is seen to be deserting the NCP-Congress for the BJP. Pawar is seeking to bring Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) on board, but whether he could be able to allot enough seats for the party in Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and adjoining areas is still a question. Unlike the last Assembly elections, he cannot afford to go solo. But going with the Congress has its own pitfalls. There is no leader worth the name in the state unit of the Congress. Besides, a section of the Congress is also opposed to a tie-up with the NCP.


This is the time when he has hit it off with Congress President Rahul Gandhi. Really, it is the other way round. Gandhi apparently lacks such leaders whose insight he could count on. When the United Progressive Alliance was in power, Gandhi virtually did everything to target the NCP despite sharing power. The two leaders had hardly met or talked.


Narasimha Rao had understood Pawar’s importance. In the early nineties, once all Pawar detractors including S B Chavan, A R Antulay, V N Gadgil and Prataprao Bhosale angrily went to Rao to complain about the Maratha strongman. The prime minister kept them waiting for long and then made a brief appearance to tell them bluntly: “I consider Pawar the leader in Maharashtra.”


In 2014, the BJP-Sena got about 48 per cent of the vote against the Congress-NCP’s 34, a huge difference of 14 percentage points. This enabled the NDA to get 41 seats of the state’s 48. The BJP and Sena had fought a bitter battle during the 2014 assembly elections, winning 122 and 63 seats, respectively, of the 288 seats in the legislature. The Congress had won 42 and the NCP 41.


This year the BJP secured 27.59 per cent of the vote and the Sena 23.29. As against this, the Congress got 16.26 per cent and the NCP 15.52. They have won 23, 18, 1 and 5 seats, respectively. (The NCP's five MPs include one from Lakshdweep, a tiny constituency.) This is the NCP’s lowest vote percentage.


Buoyed by the victory in the Lok Sabha polls, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has vowed to create a record in the Assembly by securing 220 seats.


All told, the Assembly polls will be the toughest battle for Pawar and his legacy is at stake.

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