The Secret of Pawar Play

There are few Indian politicians as inscrutable as Sharad Pawar. The old political jungle saying in Mumbai is what 'Pawar thinks, what he says and what he does, are three entirely different things.' Which might explain why no one is still quite sure what was Mr Pawar's exact role in the high drama in Maharashtra in the last month. Was the Nationalist Congress party (NCP) leader really not aware of the negotiations that his nephew Ajit Pawar was having with the BJP? Or was he simply playing both sides of Maharashtra's high stakes poker politics to find out who would give him the best deal? The full truth may never be revealed but what is clear is that as he enters his eightieth year, Pawar has proven to be the real Shatranj ka Khiladi in Maharashtra's complicated chess game.

Ironically, just a few months ago, Pawar was being almost completely written off. His party was imploding -- more than a dozen leaders and an NCP MP switched sides ahead of the elections -- and even his family seemed to be splitting apart. He was named in an Enforcement Directorate FIR, a move that in hindsight may have been Devendra Fadnavis's biggest mistake: it virtually signalled an open war between an ageing regional satrap and the rising star of Maharashtra politics.

Truth is, Pawar has never been the kind of state-wide mass leader that the national media projects him as. His primary base has been confined to his western Maharashtra citadel where he exercised control over his agrarian Maratha caste base. But he has never, for example, led the Congress or indeed, the NCP to a majority win in Maharashtra, often relying on break-ups and post poll deals to cement his position in the state. Nor has he been able to expand his influence beyond Maharashtra: his repeated attempts at a prime ministerial tilt have been foiled in the byzantine power corridors of the Delhi durbar. What Pawar has been though is a tireless, resourceful leader and an astute political negotiator, living by the adage of 'no permanent friends or enemies in politics but permanent interests'. This has enabled him to build a wide network of friends and allies across party lines. When he turned 75 in 2015, the entire political class from Narendra Modi to Sonia Gandhi were there in attendance, the same Sonia Gandhi whose foreign origins had led Pawar to leave the Congress in 1999 but with whom he unhesitatingly forged an alliance in Maharashtra and the Centre.

It is this capacity to cut through personal and ideological divides that have sustained 'Pawar power' over the years. He was, in a sense, the original coalition era politician: his P,DF-led government in Maharashtra in 1978 brought together the then Jan Sangh and socialists under one umbrella. The experiment didn’t last for more than two years but it did show Pawar as a crafty politician who was never burdened by deep ideological choices. And while the Shiv Sena was ostensibly a political opponent, Pawar never targeted Sena supremo Bal Thackeray beyond a point. Whether out of mutual respect or mutual convenience, the Pawar- Thackeray equation is proof of the politics of conciliation that have marked Maharashtra's landscape. Unlike a Bengal or a Tamil Nadu where fierce individual battles are waged and political adversaries vilified and even jailed, Maharashtra's politics is built around quid pro quo deal-making.

To some extent, the Fadnavis-Amit Shah-Modi brand of 'take no prisoners', highly competitive politics disrupted Maharashtra's relatively stable eco system. With corruption charges and FIRs being filed against political rivals, a sudden fear factor crept into the political class. Those who joined the BJP were assured of 'protection' while those who did not were targeted by the enforcement authorities. An insecure, even hostile environment was created where even the BJP's long standing ally, the Shiv Sena, was convinced that their ruling coalition was out to finish them. As was the Congress, shaken by Shah's boast of a 'Congress Mukt Bharat'.

It is this 'fear factor' that Pawar has successfully been able to exploit while stitching together what seemed like an utterly fantasy project when the election results were announced. It isn't anti-Modiism as much as a 'fear' of the Modi-Shah-Fadnavis triumvirate that has brought together political parties who have little in common apart from the need for sheer survival. Whether the Maharashtra alliance lasts is uncertain but what is clear is that regional parties find the idea of a dominant BJP a scary prospect. While the prime minister talks of 'co-operative federalism' , the truth is that the BJP has made every effort to downsize regional forces leading to fractured relationships: it happened to the Telugu Desam in Modi 1, it's now happened with the Shiv Sena in Modi 2, with the JD (U) perhaps next in line.

The BJP may legitimately claim that the Maharashtra elections were fought under the ‘Narendra-Devendra’ ‘double engine’ and to that extent are entitled to feel a sense of betrayal in the Sena switching sides after the poll verdict. But what stopped the BJP from at least reaching out to their long-standing ally and initiating negotiations on power sharing? One call from prime minister Modi to an Uddhav Thackeray or a personal visit by Shah to the Thackeray residence may have swung the sulking ally. Instead the messy break up is the culmination of a testy relationship that was hostage to the hubris of a domineering political leadership that takes its allies for granted. Yes, the Shiv Sena was desperate for a shot at chief ministership but the desperation is the consequence of five years of being fully marginalized by an ascendant BJP. Why, for example, could the BJP have not given the Sena more than just one relatively inconsequential ministry at the Centre?

The BJP’s big two may be seen as a political Chanakyas but ‘Chanakya-neeti’ cannot be built around threats and intimidation of smaller parties. It needs deft handling of bruised egos and a bit of accommodation and give and take rather than bullying people into submission. The spectre of a ‘dossier raj’ where state power is used to crush political opponents breeds suspicion and enmity. Which is where Shah-Modi could perhaps take a leaf out of the Pawar playbook: realpolitik is not just about the stick, it is often about the carrot too!

Post-script: On the campaign trail in Maharashtra, I asked Pawar about whether he had ever contemplated retirement. His response was a dismissive, “Abhi to main Jawan hoon!” Moral of the story: the eternal elixir of youth in politics is the scent of power.

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