Pawar’s Thackeray Memorial Ploy

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In leading a Shiv Sena project, the NCP leader shores up support for a lifelong ambition
Nationalist Congress Party chief and Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar has a new job: to plan, execute and oversee the building of a memorial to Bal Thackeray, the late founder and chief of the Shiv Sena. As a close friend of the late Thackeray and a mentor of his son Uddhav, Pawar’s appointment as head of the memorial committee comes as no surprise. But Pawar’s ready acceptance of the job has created ripples in political circles. The Shiv Sena and NCP are mutually opposed as political parties, the latter is a coalition partner of the Congress in Maharashtra and at the Centre as well, and there is a General Election scheduled just six months away.

But then, Pawar has always been a leader with close associations across the political divide. Though the NCP-Congress alliance has been in place for 14 years now, signs of Pawar’s discomfort with the Congress have been increasing in recent months. The leader has not wasted a single opportunity to signal to everyone in politics that he is willing and ready to lead a third front coalition at the Centre in case neither the Congress nor BJP can form one of its own.

It is in keeping with his ambitions that he has accepted this prominent role in erecting a Thackeray memorial at Shivaji Park in Dadar. According to observers, it is an open secret that this is just his first step in forging closer ties between his party and the rival Shiv Sena.

Pawar’s new job has also brought into focus another memorial being planned not too far away in Dadar by his archrival and Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. The state government has cleared the decks for a memorial to Babasaheb Ambedkar to be built in Indu Mills complex, with plans likely to get a definite shape in the run-up to the General Election next year. Both Ambedkar and Thackeray lived in Dadar, a central Mumbai locality heavily populated by Marathi speakers, and a battle of memorials could become a political flashpoint in the months ahead.

While Thackeray’s mortal remains were consigned to flames at Shivaji Park, Ambedkar’s funeral rites were done at Chaityabhoomi in Dadar. The Shiv Sena is keen that Thackeray’s memorial acquires iconic status and becomes a point of ‘pilgrimage’ for Sainiks, just as Chaityabhoomi attracts a large gathering on 6 December every year; Ambedkar, who oversaw the drafting of India’s Constitution, died on this day in 1956. Over the years, this annual event has attracted not just Dalits and other sympathisers of their cause, but also tourists from across the country and even parts of Southeast Asia. Thackeray passed away on 17 November last year, and Sainiks want his memorial complex to be called ‘Ramjanmabhoomi’, a name with an appeal aimed at devout Hindus.

The Shiv Sena was grossly disappointed when the first death anniversary of Thackeray did not turn out to be a crowdpuller. Though the party’s leaders had been given explicit instructions to ensure that a mammoth crowd turned up to pay homage at Shivaji Park, far fewer people came than expected. Now with Pawar at the helm of affairs to build the Thackeray memorial, Uddhav is sure that it will be make a solid political statement. Besides, Pawar’s clout will help Uddhav build his own bridges across the political divide.

In recent months, sources say that Pawar has been feeling increasing isolated from the UPA as the Congress has not accorded him the respect he feels he deserves. In the recent past, when AK Antony was effectively named second-in-command in the Union Cabinet after Pranab Mukherjee’s elevation as President of India, Pawar had sulked and not attended office for a couple of days. He returned to work only after a meeting with Sonia Gandhi and assurances that the Congress was mindful of his stature as a senior leader of the UPA.

With price rise, scams, corruption allegations and the ensuing public outcry over all these, Pawar feels that the Congress may not win the required number of Lok Sabha seats to retain power. If the BJP also fails to fare well, then chances would brighten of a realignment of political forces, with an alternative coalition coalescing at the Centre. If a third or fourth front emerges in such a political scenario, then Pawar does not want to lose an opportunity to play a big role in it—possibly as its Prime Minister.

Another cause of discomfort for Pawar has been Rahul Gandhi’s official elevation as Sonia Gandhi’s successor in the Congress. The 43-year-old Gandhi scion is likely to want a relatively young team of leaders around him. Little wonder then that the NCP leader has been on the lookout for new friends and potential allies for 2014.

By way of cadres, the NCP and Shiv Sena share a ‘cultural closeness’ that would ease an alliance between the two. After the polls of 2014, Pawar may want the help of Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena MPs to gain a sizeable support base while staking his claim to prime ministership. Hence the importance of Pawar’s new job is not lost on Sainiks, who are keen that the memorial should come up before 17 November 2015. How energetically he works, they’ll be watching.