Gurgaon (Haryana), 26 November, 2017 | It was surprising to see Sharad Pawar’s picture in one of the National English daily a few days ago. Nowadays one hardly sees or hears him in the media. He was the most influential Maratha leader and the epicenter of Maharashtra politics. He was an important player in National politics too.
It all began when he rebelled against Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, citing her Italian origin. He was expelled from the Indian National Congress party in May 1999, immediately after that he, along with some other Congress leaders, including PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar, formed a new political party, the Nationalist Congress Party, NCP.
Prior to this incident, Sharad Pawar was one of the key leaders of the Congress party with considerable clout within the party and wielded power and acceptability nationally. At one time he was one of the contenders to be prime minister. The NCP, on the other hand, never became a potent force at the national political scene. His own popularity within Maharashtra too dwindled. In the subsequent parliamentary election he ate humble pie when NCP was forced for reasons of survival, to align with the Congress party under the leadership of the same Sonia Gandhi, whom he had opposed.
Today politically, the most volatile and interesting state is Maharashtra. It outruns Tamil Nadu on this count because it is the second largest state in the country with well- established political parties and having a BJP government supported by its disgruntled ally, the Shiv Sena.
Everybody in and outside of the Congress read that Sharad Pawar rebelled against Sonia Gandhi on the pretext of her foreign origin not because he believed it to be an insurmountable issue but because the emergence of Sonia Gandhi as party leader put paid to his desire, hope and claim to be the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Congress party when she, a new and inexperienced leader, assumed center stage. He miscalculated the mood of the party cadres and the Indian public at large.
NCP continued the partnership with Congress till 2014 parliamentary elections. The acceptance and reach of the NCP further plummeted after it unilaterally discontinued the coalition with INC and contested elections without the support of its longstanding partner in the 2014 assembly elections of Maharashtra. Though there was a massive anti-Congress wave running across the country, NCP bagged even lesser number of seats than the Congress and its vote share was also lower than that of Congress. To date, no one knows what political sense or lack of it prevailed in the thinking of NCP that prompted it to move away from the coalition. Some conjecture that it was the fear of the central government, some say it was Sharad Pawar losing control of the party. One speculation is that the tussle between Ajit Pawar and Praful Patel led to this decision. My guess is as good as anybody else’s. Only Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, Ajit Pawar and perhaps, to some extent,Supriya Sule can throw some light on it.
NCP seems to still have a national ambition on paper but does not have a cohesive party structure across the country. One parliamentary seat each from Lakshadweep, Mohammed Faizal P P, and one from Bihar, Tariq Anwar, and a couple of MLA seats in Kerala, Gujarat and some other states are the only token presence of the party outside Maharashtra. Here it is important to know that in both cases people say Mohammed Faizal has his own clout and won the seat on his own strength as did Tariq Anwar in Bihar.
Sharad Pawar has also maintained a friendly footing with Narendra Modi. To all appearances their ties are cordial but critics suspect that this mutual admiration is political. Each has praised the other on many occasions. This leads to a feeling that Sharad Pawar and NCP are secretly supporting the BJP government at the center for reasons not in common knowledge.
In the Maharashtra assembly too, the NCP allowed the rumour to circulate that in the event of Shiv Sena not supporting or joining government with BJP, the NCP would come to BJP’s rescue. There was no definite denial by any responsible functionary of NCP about this and that made Shiv Sena come under pressure and it joined the state government grudgingly.
In the recent past, there was this intriguing decision by NCP of supporting a BJP candidate in the Gujarat Rajya Sabha polls. This despite NCP having fought and won seats in the coalition with Congress. Their MLA openly voted against Ahmad Patel of Congress. The role of Prafulla Patel in this context has not been very forthcoming and stands out as dubious. This episode again raises doubts about some kind of secret understanding between BJP and NCP.
About a week ago, out of the blue, Sharad Pawar praised Rahul Gandhi. People thought that some sense had dawned on NCP about the emerging political situation in the country where it was seen that Rahul Gandhi alone could bring the anti-BJP forces together. This perception died early when during the seat-sharing negotiations with Congress for the forthcoming Gujarat assembly NCP demanded seats way beyond its actual support and influence on the ground, and Congress did not oblige them this time. Perhaps one reason for the Congress’s stand was the NCP MLA’s vote against Ahmed Patel. However this again is raising doubts in the minds of NCP-watchers about its intentions.
It is about time that NCP awakens to the difficult position it is leading itself to. No level- headed person will think of NCP aligning with BJP in 2019 for the parliamentary elections or in the assembly. It may safely be assumed that BJP may not part with respectable number of seats for NCP and if it does for tactical reasons, this may be the beginning of the end of NCP as all the smaller parties that align with BJP, ultimately lose their support base to BJP and so will, inevitably, NCP.
The coming together of Shiv Sena and NCP will not help either. Both have overlapping areas of influence and a common vote base too. It may in the short run consolidate their base but in the long run they will lose the fringe supporters. This may limit their reach in some geographical parts and thus actually be detrimental for their combined growth.This will also allow BJP and Congress to poach on the non-Maratha supporters of both NCP and Shiv Sena.
The saga of NCP is one of a vehicle running on jagged tires, with a rickety body and an old and ageing engine. It requires the support of a coalition as a mechanic to tug it along. A total overhaul is needed, else the vehicle is likely to be junked by the electorate in the forthcoming elections, whether local bodies, assembly or parliament.
One noteworthy speech here, another mature speech there by Supriya Sule in the parliament sparked off speculation that she could be poised to take a lead role in the party.But after that there was a complete lull and all the expectations nosedived.But, she has become active again. Does she really want to take charge of the party? Will she be allowed to by other aspirants in the NCP?
The Congress’ resurgence at the national level and in Maharashtra is going to put further pressure on NCP. What course NCP follows will determine if it is going to even survive as a force to be reckoned with in Maharashtra leave alone as a recognized national party because it was only in the company of Congress that it retained its national status. Praful Patel, Ajit Pawar and Supriya Sule may not recognize the current predicament NCP is facing but,surely, Sharad Pawar is too seasoned a politician to not see the writing on the wall.
Nawed Akhter is a senior film maker and political analyst based in Gurgaon.