Monday Musings: At 82, Sharad Pawar faces toughest challenge of his political career - Hindustan Times

Monday Musings: At 82, Sharad Pawar faces toughest challenge of his political career

Jul 02, 2023 11:14 PM IST

Ajit Pawar's rebellion against Sharad Pawar has left the NCP chief facing the most difficult period in his political career. Despite losing most of his party, Sharad Pawar remains calm and determined to take on the challenge. His ability to keep his close aides by his side is now in question. Ajit Pawar's rebellion may be driven by the desire to safeguard the interests of those controlling cooperatives and educational institutes, who see advantage in being on the ruling side. Sharad Pawar's previous defections may have come back to haunt him.

Minutes after Ajit Pawar was sworn-in as deputy chief minister – third time in four years since 2019 – he held a press conference with party working president Praful Patel sitting on his right, and senior leader and cabinet colleague Chhagan Bhujbal on left. That pretty much symbolised the latest situation when most of Sharad Pawar’s colleagues, including those from his family have deserted him.

Sharad Pawar address a press at his residence of 1Modibaug on Ganeshkhind Road in Pune on Sunday. (Kalpesh Nukte/HT PHOTO)
Sharad Pawar address a press at his residence of 1Modibaug on Ganeshkhind Road in Pune on Sunday. (Kalpesh Nukte/HT PHOTO)

It also underlined that in his 55-year-old political career, Sharad Pawar is facing the most difficult period. Back in 1980, Pawar had faced a situation when 52 of the 58 MLAs left him. Pawar at that time went sought support and the subsequent elections showed that he regained his strength with 79 MLAs, something he recalled in Sunday’s press conference after the latest rebellion.

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“I am not bothered that people have left, but I am worried for their future,” Pawar senior said indicating that he is once again willing to take on the challenge. Perhaps he is once again hoping to replicate photo-finish moment of October 2019 when he addressed public rally in heavy rain in Satara. The pictures of the rally, splashed all over media next day helped him regain lost ground.

When Pawar was asked who will be the face of the party, the NCP chief’s response drew cheer as he raised his hand and said, “Sharad Pawar”. All through the press conference, Pawar looked rather calm and relaxed even as he practically lost his entire party.

At 82, and with serious health challenges, Pawar, however, is fighting a lonely battle as most of his trusted lieutenants Praful Patel, Chhagan Bhujbal, Dilip Walse-Patil, Sunil Tatkare, and around 40 of the total 53 MLAs referred to go with Ajit Pawar. In western Maharashtra, considered to be NCP’s area of stronghold, most of party’s MLAs are with Ajit Pawar.

Those standing firm with Sharad Pawar in this current crisis are his daughter Supriya Sule, Jayant Patil and Jitendra Awhad, and Anil Deshmukh.

If the consecutive defeats, one after another since 2014, have reduced his political strength in Maharashtra as well as Delhi, the latest rebellion has put a question mark on his ability to keep close aids on his side especially when survival without power is difficult for Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and its leaders.

The NCP, formed by Sharad Pawar in 1999 after rebellion in the Congress, has spent 18 out of 24 years of its existence enjoying power.

The second rung of the NCP, mostly those controlling cooperatives and educational institutes, see advantage in being on the ruling side since they not only have to safeguard their own turfs but also safeguard their future as many of them have been accused of irregularities and are facing cases at various levels. Added to this, are the financial problems facing the cooperative institutes that they have been running.

This, according to political observers, has been reasons for Ajit to rebel knowing well that the party which enjoyed fruits of being in government at various levels – starting from major local bodies, state and centre – is now in uncharted territory. “Sharad Pawar by announcing to step down as party chief in May tried to save NCP from the split. However, his attempts were inadequate and eventually Ajit managed to take away most of MLAs,” said Ravikiran Deshmukh, political observer.

For Pawar senior too, staying without power for long will be a major challenge. It was for a brief four-and-a-half-year period between 1995 to 1999, that Pawar and his associates, as a part of the united Congress, were out of power when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance ruled the state. But Pawar was then in his 50s and the Congress hoped to return to power soon as the mood in the state had changed.

The five years between 2014 to 2019 was a phase most NCP men were unfamiliar with as the socio-political equations in the state changed drastically and party’s loyal voteback – Marathas – allied with BJP.

If the defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, followed by another drubbing in the assembly polls and the 2017 civic polls in 10 municipal corporations in Maharashtra was enough to dishearten many of the party leaders, who left Pawar to join BJP before 2019 assembly polls.

Realising this well, Pawar threw a surprise and formulated an unthinkable alliance among NCP, Shiv Sena, and Congress. However, after three years when the MVA government collapsed in June 2022, Pawar began facing challenge from within. Without power for another year, this time the challenge came from within his house as nephew Ajit Pawar as party’s number - 2 leader shed inhibitions to openly ally with BJP and Shiv Sena (Eknath Shinde).

Perhaps Sharad Pawar got a dose of politics he practised years ago when he twice defected from Congress to ally with parties to return to power.

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