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NEW DELHI: Sharad Pawar is an intriguing character. He is both trusted and distrusted by his friends as well as his enemies. The man who started his political career at a very young age and became Chief Minister in his mid-30s is a great survivor and now is reckoned with as the grand old man of Indian politics. He is trying hard to still be relevant. At a time when Modi’s popularity is waning, he wants to emerge as the rallying point for the anti-Modi forces, to be the glue for opposition unity. But the question is: will he be trusted? Can he be trusted? Last week, he gave a call for opposition unity and invited opposition leaders for a march on Republic Day in Mumbai to protest against the politics and policies of the Modi government, though the main agenda is essentially to oppose the call given by BJP leaders to change the constitution.

Pawar’s call is interesting for the simple reason that his party refused to not contest the assembly elections in Gujarat at a time when there was a cry for unity from the opposition benches to defeat the BJP in its citadel. Modi and his party just about scraped through and the Congress lost one of its most bitter fights in recent times. Even for Ahmed Patel’s Rajya Sabha election, Pawar’s party had voted differently, and it was believed that Pawar was looking for some kind of aligning with Modi. It was also assumed that in Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar and the NCP could bail out the BJP if the Shiv Sena decided to walk out of the ruling alliance. Known for his hard bargaining, Pawar’s latest move has surprised even his friends. It is reported that for this Samvidhan March, he himself made phone calls to some opposition leaders like Farooq Abdullah, Sitaram Yechury, Sharad Yadav and D Raja.

The success of Sharad Pawar’s move for unity depends on the Congress, with whom he has a love-hate relationship. The Congress, despite its depleted presence in the Lok Sabha, is still the biggest opposition party. Pawar was once considered one of the stalwarts of the Congress. In fact, in 1991, after the demise of Rajiv Gandhi, he was a strong claimant for Prime Minister. He had thrown his hat in the ring and his friend Suresh Kalmadi had organised a lavish party for the newly-elected Congress MPs in Delhi which was attended by approximately 60 of them. Senior Congress leaders had not liked this brazen exhibition of ambition. Though Sonia Gandhi was not active in politics at the time, her approval was the most paramount blessing.

Though it was Rajiv Gandhi who was instrumental Pawar’s rejoining the Congress in 80s, he was viewed with suspicion by Rajiv’s coterie and this coterie convinced Sonia that loyalist Narasimha Rao who had been sent into retirement by Sonia’s husband would be more trust-worthy as Prime Minister. Pawar lost that battle and he had no option but to accept Rao as his boss. That was the zenith of Pawar’s career. He was close and yet so far from the most-coveted post.

Then Pawar committed a blunder. When Sonia was called by Congress leaders to take on the mantle of the president after Sitaram Kesri in 1997, he rebelled by raising the issue of Sonia’s foreign origins.Along with P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar, he floated his own party and left the Congress. It was his bad luck that the Congress bounced back in 2004 and Pawar was left with no choice but to support the Congress at the centre and in Maharashtra. The man who was once a claimant for the top job in the country surrendered coyly, accepted Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister and through he was expected to be Defence Minister, he was given Agriculture. His party played second-fiddle to Congress in his home state for 15 years. Now his NCP is no longer considered a strong force in Maharashtra. He is not the strongman he once was. But he still harbours considerable ambition and his call for this opposition March is again seen with scepticism, especially by the Congress.

Sonia Gandhi with whom he always had an uneasy relationship is not at the helm of the affairs in the Congress: the new party president Rahul Gandhi is too junior to him. He is more idealistic than his mother. Pawar on the other hand is ruthlessly a realist. He believes in power politics. Rahul has also changed a bit in last few months. He has shown the world that he is preparing for the big battle in 2019. While Modi is losing his charisma, he is planning to reposition himself as an alternative to Modi. He has to weave a counter-narrative. He has to re-energise his party and convince anti-Modi parties that he has the character to lead them as a viable alternative to the duo of Modi and Amit Shah. In this context, Pawar’s antics can create doubts in Rahul’s mind.

Along with this, the opposition has still not got over the trauma of betrayal by Nitish Kumar, who was the original challenger to Modi and was projecting himself to be the centre of opposition unity. He had once tried to tutor Rahul Gandhi about the nuances of opposition unity. But one fine evening in July (last year), the whole world was shocked as he walked into Modi’s camp. In a moment, he had turned saffron. That was the lowest point for opposition unity. It not only lost a powerful leader but also the momentum which was in the process of being built to challenge the might of Modi.

The truth is that Pawar’s credentials are not too great; he has been ambivalent vis-a-vis Modi and the BJP. Trust is the big issue after the Nitish chapter. Opposition parties will take his words with a pinch of salt. Pawar has to take some drastic measures to improve his credentials.

There is another question which needs to be understood. The country has moved from the time of 70s and 80s when one JP and V P Singh, old warhorses, could galvanize masses. The country is in the 21st century, technologically in a much more advanced state, and it has a youthful population that seeks a fresh vision. Pawar looks jaded, he suffers from old ideas. He is also a prisoner of his own not too good image. It will be difficult for the country and also for the opposition to accept him in pole position.

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