Pawar’s Real Problem Lies at Home

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His nephew’s increasing clout is forcing him to focus on the state. The drama at the Centre is only a pretext

MUMBAI He was once known as the Maratha strongman, a political heavyweight who held sway over Maharashtra’s political arena. It was an enviable position to be in. The hold he had on the state had hurled Sharad Pawar, the then Congressman and current chief of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), into a powerful bargaining position with the political elite of New Delhi. A wily politician, Pawar held the upper hand in numerous dealings in the past. But his recent standoff with the Congress and threat to quit as the UPA’s agriculture minister suggests otherwise.

Pawar’s clout has been on the wane. Since the time news of his illness made its way to the public domain, his hold on both his party and Delhi’s political arena has been slipping. Though a Pawar-obsessed Marathi media may continue to project him as the ‘strongman’ he once was, the truth is that factional fights within his own party are getting the better of him. His decision to adopt a non-cooperative stance with the UPA Government at the Centre, particularly the Congress Party, has its origin in local Maharashtra politics and the rise of his nephew Ajit Pawar.

Sources disclose that since Ajit is fast emerging as a dominant force in the state, Pawar is keen to return to Mumbai from Delhi, and offer the UPA external support instead. In any case, the Agriculture Ministry has never greatly appealed to Pawar. The problems plaguing the agricultural sector and his inability to tackle them have not been good for the senior leader’s image. This is not the first time he has thought of giving up the ministry.

By returning to state politics, Pawar can take firm charge of the NCP’s internal affairs before the crucial 2014 Assembly and Lok Sabha polls. If he lets his nephew lead the party into the arena, he may never regain full control of the NCP. For, in such an event, Ajit is likely to pip his daughter Supriya Sule and emerge as the party’s most powerful state politician.

Ajit, as the state’s Deputy Chief Minister, is already acting as a parallel power centre within the NCP to his uncle, and this has played havoc with the senior leader’s plans to pave the way for his daughter’s takeover of the party. Insiders say that Pawar was not keen on anointing his nephew the state’s Deputy CM, but persistent pressure by Ajit forced his decision on the matter.

The years since Pawar’s surgery for mouth cancer have been particularly traumatic for the ageing politician. Questions have arisen over his fitness as a leader. All this has not been lost on the ambitious nephew who has for many decades stayed in his uncle’s shadow. It is an open secret in political circles that Ajit has broken free of his uncle’s influence and has tried hard to ensure his own stamp on the working of the party. Though senior leaders in the party have kept Pawar in the loop on his nephew’s progress, the uncle has not been able to rein him in. Hence, Pawar’s latest ploy. Walking out of the UPA coalition and returning to Maharashtra, where too the NCP is a coalition partner of the Congress, could give him just the chance he needs to get his local networks back in operation.

In Delhi, however, Pawar has been hobnobbing with opposition leaders. This has been read as a warning to the Congress that he is ready to switch sides. But political calculations expose even these parleys for what they are: an attempt at grandstanding. The plain truth is that he needs the Congress. This has always been the case. Remember, he tied up with the Grand Old Party merely a few months after he walked out of it in June 1999 to form the NCP.

Until a few years ago, Pawar was focused on his singular dream of becoming India’s Prime Minister. However, his loosening grip in the state and Delhi may have made him realise the futility of this ambition.

His nephew, on the other hand, has made it clear that he wants to be Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, and has already begun work in that direction. It was regional political compulsions that brought the Congress and NCP together as partners, and they will probably fight the 2014 polls as allies. There are enough indications, though, that Ajit wants the NCP to go it alone. This will emerge as a contentious factor between the two Pawars.

A sneak preview of this was seen in the February polls to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Ajit was strongly opposed to Pawar’s plans for a pre-poll alliance with the Congress. After the senior leader refused to go by his nephew’s calculations, Ajit spent the rest of the year pushing an agenda of his own. Recently, when the NCP’s state unit held an election to pick a chief, Ajit was keen on having his own man win. But Pawar scuttled this move and granted another five-year term to Madhukar Pichhad, a sworn loyalist of his. In other fields of party work, though, Ajit has managed to sideline several loyalists of his uncle, replacing them with his own.

Ajit’s moves have irked Pawar. To ensure that his daughter stays in the reckoning for the NCP’s leadership, he has set up the Yuwati Congress, a women’s wing headed by Supriya, who has a free rein on raising leaders from its ranks. The odd part is that the NCP already had a women’s wing. So the Yuwati Congress is seen quite clearly as nothing but—a vehicle for Supriya’s ambitions. It is well known that she too would like a shot at chief ministership. But observers say that she cannot match Ajit’s aggression, and without her father’s active backing, may have no chance at all.

In recent months, Kirit Somaiyya, chief of the BJP’s Fraud Cell and a former MP, has been ‘unearthing’ one scam after another involving NCP ministers like PWD minister Chhagan Bhujbal and Water Resources minister Sunil Tatkare. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan has also announced a white paper to be brought out on the Irrigation ministry, headed by Ajit Pawar for the past decade. Since all the targets happen to be of the NCP, Pawar is said to suspect a Congress hand in Somaiyya’s moves.

Those who have known Pawar say that he is working to a new agenda that has Maharashtra as its focus. Don’t count on his presence in Delhi for long.