In Maharashtra battle, Pawar is down but not out, yet
The crisis faced by Pawar is a consequence of the larger political dynamics. The 2024 polls will offer one final opportunity to reclaim his position
When Sharad Pawar first became Maharashtra chief minister (CM) in 1978, Morarji Desai was the country’s Prime Minister (PM), Rajiv Gandhi was still an Indian Airlines pilot, Narendra Modi was an unknown Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak and Rahul Gandhi was in junior school. This reveals just how remarkably durable as a political figure the four-time Maharashtra CM and former Union minister has been in national politics. The ultimate survivor, the 82-year-old Pawar has even fought and won a tough battle against cancer. The question now is: Does the Maratha strongman have the stamina for one last fight, this time within his own family as well as with his political rivals?
For a while, his Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP’s) core dilemma has been — After Pawar, who? An ambitious nephew, Ajit Pawar, with grassroots organisational connect, squared off against a more urbane and sophisticated daughter Supriya Sule, creating the kind of inheritance wars that often roil family-centric parties.
Although an astute Pawar divided responsibilities between nephew and daughter — Ajit handled the western Maharashtra family bastion while Supriya was the party’s parliamentary face in Delhi — a clear succession plan was never drawn up. As a five-time deputy CM, Ajit Pawar was desperate to take the final step up and emerge from his uncle’s shadow. The rebellion last week was Ajit’s way of asserting his autonomy, although the fact that he still needs to showcase his uncle’s life-size photo at public meetings is a reminder of the limitations of his personal appeal.
But family conflicts are only a small part of the crisis confronting the NCP. Unlike the fierce battle between the Thackeray cousins for control of the Shiv Sena, there has been little acrimony, at least in public, between the Pawars. In fact, shared commercial interests, especially across Maharashtra’s vast cash-rich co-operative and real estate sector, means that the Pawars are not just a political family but also a deeply entwined joint family business enterprise. So what has suddenly changed to explain the tit-for-tat expulsions and bitter war of words that threatens the NCP’s very identity?
This is where the larger political context becomes relevant. For only the second time in his long political career, Pawar is faced with the prospect of being in the Opposition for an extended period, both at the state and national level. The only other time was in the 1980s, when Pawar had spearheaded an anti-Congress front in Maharashtra, only to do a ghar wapsi (homecoming) in 1986. On that occasion, Pawar was able to work out a deal with Rajiv Gandhi, a PM who was still coming to terms with the demands of power politics. In 2023, the challenge facing the octogenarian Pawar is not managing an intra-Congress feud but battling a belligerent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bent on crushing all opposition.
For PM Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah, Maharashtra has always been a prized state, not only because it is the country’s commercial hub but also because it has 48 Lok Sabha seats on offer, the second highest after Uttar Pradesh. When Pawar walked out in the last stretch of a dialogue over government formation with the BJP in 2019, Modi and Shah felt a sense of betrayal. Modi has a personal rapport with Pawar, often praising him fulsomely in public and even awarding him the Padma Vibhushan in 2017. Their common friends include industrialist Gautam Adani. Shah, on the other hand, has no such special equation with Pawar.
Nor does the BJP’s Maharashtra face, former CM Devendra Fadnavis. Having settled scores with Uddhav Thackeray by breaking the Shiv Sena last year, Shah and Fadnavis were looking to checkmate the NCP leadership. In fact, the playbook was uncannily similar in both cases: Identify restive individuals with vaulting ambitions, strike bargains with them, offer them the carrot of plum ministerial posts and, as other Opposition parties have speculated, use the stick of federal agencies.
That both the major regional parties of Maharashtra are so vulnerable reveals the complete breakdown of the state’s moral and political core. While the Sena was held together by the ideological glue of Maharashtrian asmita (self-respect) and later Hindutva, the post-Bal Thackeray leadership has struggled to match the charismatic personality of the organisation’s eternal mascot. The NCP’s ideology, by contrast, is almost non-existent. The party was founded by Sharad Pawar against the backdrop of his stand against Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. But once Mrs Gandhi withdrew from the prime ministerial stakes in 2004, the very raison d’etre of the NCP was called into question. The party then became a transactional coalition of Maharashtra’s agrarian and industrial bourgeoisie, driven by the lure of wealth and power and Pawar’s persona as the consummate dealmaking politician.
Power can be ephemeral. The BJP is the country’s number one party at the moment by some distance, but in the more combative terrain of Maharashtra, it is still to establish its dominance. Which explains its urgent need to make alliances and break parties ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha and assembly elections. Which is also why the 2024 battle presents the inscrutable Pawar, down but not out, one last opportunity to reclaim his position as a front-ranking politician. In Bollywood lingo, picture abhi baaki hai (The picture is still not over)!
Post-script: When I asked him for the secret to his political longevity, Sharad Pawar replied: “In one word: Patience.” Which is why when his nephew taunted him by asking him to retire, Pawar’s reply was typically unflappable: “I am neither tired nor retired.” Maharashtra’s game of thrones awaits a final act next year.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal.