The NCP’s Waning Relevance

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Sharad Pawar’s inability to part ways with the party from which he split 13 years ago has diminished both his regional and national prospects
In the run up to the 2014 elections, when the people of Maharashtra will elect two governments—Centre and state—pressure is rising in the political arena. The otherwise calm Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is caught in a heated exchange of words with Sharad Pawar, Union Agriculture Minister and President of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Statements and counter statements have trapped both leaders in a cycle of political one-upmanship, with both using the public dais to take pot-shots at each other and air their bitter rivalry.

Pawar may have made Chavan angry, but the NCP chief is the angrier man. In a recent public function, Chavan questioned the relevance of the NCP in Maharashtra politics, setting tongues wagging. In the CM’s opinion, since the NCP’s foundational issue—Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin—has wilted away in the years since its formation, the party no longer has any ideological relevance. In response, an angry Pawar reminded Chavan that had he not broken away from the Congress, Chavan would never have become Chief Minister.

In the years since the formation of the NCP, Pawar has joined coalition governments with the Congress both at the Centre and state level. In fact, his coalition dharma first extended itself to the Congress barely a few months after he caused a vertical split and walked out of the party. In the state Assembly polls soon after the split, the Congress emerged as the single largest party in Maharashtra. Had Pawar weakened the Congress or made it stronger? This has been a subject of political debate ever since.

In the 13 years of his party’s political alliance with the Congress, Pawar has never been keen to walk out of the marriage. He has hobnobbed with others, but has always returned to the Congress. Time and again, Pawar has stated that the alliance between his party and the Congress is a political compulsion to keep “communal forces” at bay—referring, of course, to the saffron alliance in the state constituting the Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party. Yet he has held on to his friendships with leaders of both these parties as a warning to the Congress that he could break away again. But he never has, staying on with the Congress despite the knowledge that his ally has not been kind to his ambitions.

The NCP’s biggest problem is that it is a party with too many leaders, each vying for his/her own political space. The Congress, on the other hand, is bereft of mass leaders. Well, there is the Chief Minister, but he has attained his status as a mass leader only due to his position—it may be difficult for Chavan to win an Assembly seat. Even his constituency Karad, in Western Maharashtra, cannot be called a safe seat for him. Given such political dynamics, the continued alliance between both these parties is truly a compulsion.

Interestingly, Pawar’s own party men have lost track of the reason for the party’s formation. They don’t talk of the Congress President’s foreign origin, they are working under a Congress Chief Minister, many of them are eyeing vacant leadership spaces within the Congress and many are unwilling to work under the aggressive Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar’s nephew and the state’s Deputy Chief Minister. In many ways, the NCP seems an extension of the Congress, and both party’s leaders speak the same political language. Given all this, Chavan’s outburst on the NCP’s relevance is not mere rhetoric.

Like his party men, even the NCP president has put his burning ambition—to become Prime Minister—on the backburner, an ambition he has carried through his days in the Congress and out of it. A realisation seems to have dawned that he may never make it to the PM’s chair. Senior NCP leaders who left the Congress with Pawar have also been impacted by his lost chance at becoming PM; they have realised that Pawar is unable to deliver opportunities for them to get government positions without the Congress. Some say that the NCP is a tested missile whose range is 60 Assembly seats and 10 Parliamentary seats. In the years since his ostensible ‘split’ with the Congress, Pawar has been unable to prove that his party can go it alone.

The NCP has largely remained a regional party and has found it difficult to extend its area of influence beyond Maharashtra. Though not for want of trying, it has not managed to get its act together to emerge as a strong national party. In Maharashtra too, senior NCP leaders seem to have lost faith in Pawar’s ability to lead the party towards bigger gains. Many are now eyeing the Congress, and there could soon be some defections, sources say.

Even though the NCP has tried to eclipse the Congress within the state, its attempts have been half-hearted. Since Chavan took over, he has brought all departments headed by NCP ministers under strict scrutiny. Scams have come to light and investigations ordered, yet the NCP has stayed on with the Congress. Ajit Pawar has been itching to go it alone in the polls but his uncle has firmly refused.

Many draw similarities between the NCP and Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Like the NCP Chief, Thackeray too broke away from his uncle, the late Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena. Raj has emerged as a spoiler for the Shiv Sena and is clear about his intent: to take crucial votes away from that party’s share. He is not confused about the course of the MNS; it has a single focus: to prove that Uddhav Thackeray cannot lead the Shiv Sena. Unlike the NCP, the MNS is not keen on an alliance with the Shiv Sena, as this will mean sharing seats, which Raj is averse to. Despite overtures from various quarters in the Shiv Sena suggesting a reunion between Uddhav and Raj, either by a coalition or merger of the two parties, the MNS Chief has never made any indication of his next move.

The NCP’s course, in contrast, is confused; its closeness to the Congress is inhibiting its march forward. For the Congress, it is as if a coalition with the NCP is a given, a guarantee. In these circumstances, Chavan’s questioning of the NCP’s relevance appears valid. After all, what is the identity of the NCP today? It is certainly not a spoiler for the Congress, racing to offer the ruling party an olive branch when controversies arise. The arrogance of the Congress is not lost on Pawar, but his extreme reluctance to move out of the heavy shadow cast by the ruling party is becoming a matter of concern for his own partymen. If their ambitions are to be realised, the NCP must move out of this shadow.

Many say that a coalition with the Congress is more acceptable to Pawar than the idea of his over-ambitious nephew leading the party in the state. The NCP Chief may have conceded the Deputy Chief Minister’s chair to his nephew, but anything more is unacceptable. Going it alone for the NCP will mean the rise of the nephew as an unchallenged force, and this is an eventuality Pawar wants to avoid.

As the NCP goes with the Congress to the 2014 polls, it is with the knowledge that it faces a tougher challenge. There is much more to be done if it wants to widen its influence in Maharashtra state. The party’s continuing relevance depends solely on its willingness to move out of the Congress shadow.