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March 6, 1998


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Pawar and the art of turning defeat into victory

The best laid plans of politicians have this habit of being undone by the voters. Thus it is that the Bharatiya Janata Party, despite surpassing all expectations to come within touching distance of federal power, falls short of the magic number owing to reverses in its strongholds. Thus it is that Sonia Gandhi, belying all claims and media projections, falls flat on her face, her putative charisma unable to retain even the family borough Amethi. Thus it is that Sharad Pawar, after cleansing his home state, Maharashtra, of the colour saffron, watches in horror as his prime ministerial ambitions are thwarted thanks to a party unable to transform crowds into votes.

But Pawar it is who will remain under the microscope, since he has made no bones of his prime ministerial ambitions. Pawar it is who will focus all his energies on pulling the plug on the BJP, never mind even if the latter wins the required numbers in Parliament. Pawar it is who will become prime minister if the Congress manages to sew up a coalition within the 12th Lok Sabha.

Pawar's triumph in beating the Shiv Sena and the BJP is even more remarkable than the achievements of Mulayam Singh in Uttar Pradesh, Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar and even J Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu. Yes, it is a highly debatable point, but seen in the light of what their electoral victory means for each of these creditable individuals, there cannot be much debate left.

Mulayam has managed to not get pulverised by the saffron juggernaut in his home-state, and single-handedly prevented a sweep in favour of the BJP in UP. Apart from denying the crucial numbers to the BJP, and emerging as a giant within the UF, there is nothing much for him to crow about. Ditto for Laloo, whose electoral performance has far exceeded everyone's expectations, barring his own. It still does not take him beyond his present parameters. Jaya, by disproving everyone's theories of her lack of winnability, outshines the other two. By being on the right side, she has ensured a few ministerial portfolios for her MPs, possibly even for herself. But it is Pawar alone, by virtue of his performance back home, who has come within striking distance of 7, Racecourse road.

Luck is surely smiling on the Maratha chieftain, and it is his own belief in the astral forces that is propelling him to patch up a hurried alliance between his party and others who, not very long ago, engaged his party in a bitter struggle for supremacy.

The decimation of Congress heavyweights like Arjun Singh and N D Tiwari has cleared the deck for Pawar, at least that is the inference that he is drawing from mandate '98. Yes, there are other contenders who have come back, like Madhavrao Scindia and K Karunakaran, and it is well known that Sonia Gandhi would personally see anybody other than Pawar in the prime ministerial chair if at all the Congress decides to go for it.

But, Scindia's and Karunakaran's accomplishments are not in the same league as Pawar's. Neither has managed to vanquish the opposition in their homestates, and that is something Pawar can legitimately claim. And given that the opposition in his state is the same as the Congress party's rival on the national proscenium, his achievement is even more noteworthy.

It is not just that he has stopped the BJP-Sena in their tracks. Willynilly, events have conspired to keep the vaunted Sonia charisma under check. If the Congress had performed uniformly well across the country, then the credit for it could be laid outside the doors of 10, Janpath, but now since Maharashtra is an island of positive performance in a sea of mediocrity and worse, Sonia Gandhi's bluff has been effectively called. The best that can be said of her campaign was that it prevented a Congress party rout and an outright victory for the BJP; as for the crowds that came to see thebahu, well, it was a nice outing, thank you.

Pawar's fear of waiting till the next election is understandable. The combination of Sonia on the decline, the rout or containment of other contenders, and the resurgence of the Congress may not come about again, and it is clear that Pawar burns with the ambition not to end up like his political mentor, Y B Chavan, who could not span the distance between deputy prime minister and the most important job in the country.

Who knows, the throw of the political dice the next time may see the Gandhi family's active participation in party affairs, or the success of Arjun Singh and Tiwari, or the Thackeray family hitting its winning streak. Any or all of these together could thwart Pawar, and there would be no tomorrows for him if that were to so happen.

But Pawar is still fighting a losing battle, if emerging as the consensus candidate to replace the BJP now is his objective. For one, the Congress is in no way united in its decision to bid for power, there are any number who believe that the exclusively anti-BJP stance of the party has damaged more than it benefited. This segment, although comprising mostly of the younger MPs in the party, is by no means a pushover. Not only is it wary of Sharad Pawar, it also has access to Sonia Gandhi's ears, a pair that has not heard many positive things about the Maratha chieftain in the past.

Pawar's best bet would be not to strive to keep the BJP out at this time, but to go along with the popular view to allow its continuity in office. There are not many who believe that the BJP government can complete its full term, so weighed down is it with not only internal contradictions but also past masters at sabotage. Wisdom lies in not only knowing one's strengths well, but also the enemy's weaknesses and the right time to strike.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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