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Pawar strikes yet again
October 16, 2003
What is Sharad Pawar up to? Why is he bent on insulting Sonia Gandhi, the president of a party which has formed a coalition in Maharashtra?
Part of the answer, of course, is that Pawar is angling for a better deal in the next Lok Sabha elections. He is reminding the Congress (I) that the government in wealthy Mumbai depends upon his support. But is that all there is to it?
To recap what happened in the last week, Sharad Pawar once again raked up the issue of Sonia Gandhi's foreign birth, claiming that this should render her unsuitable for the post of prime minister.
The leading Congressmen in Maharashtra -- Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde and Pradesh Congress Committee Chief Ranjit Deshmukh -- immediately rushed to their leader's defence. They gave Pawar an 'ultimatum' -- retract the statement in seven days or face the consequences.
The Nationalist Congress Party president took less than 24 hours to respond, answering one threat with another --
keep quiet or be prepared to face the fall of a ministry. Sonia Gandhi summoned Shinde and Deshmukh to Delhi, and the Congress (I) decided to get off its high horse.
I am intrigued by the timing. K Karunakaran's brazen defiance of the 'High Command' was probably the immediate provocation. It told Pawar that Sonia Gandhi lacks the guts to take on any regional leader who possesses some ounce of popular backing.
Yet make no mistake, there is a major difference between the two leaders. Karunakaran may have served in the Union Cabinet but everybody knows that his ambitions are largely confined to Kerala. Can one say the same of Sharad Pawar?
Twelve years ago, in the wake of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Sharad Pawar was one of the three men who put their names in the ring to succeed him as president of the Congress (I). Arjun Singh withdrew as soon as it became that it would come to an open fight, but Pawar refused to draw back even after it was obvious that he lacked the support of the Nehru-Gandhi clan.
Later yet, he made no secret of his ambition to succeed P V Narasimha Rao, and then Sitaram Kesri, at some point. These dreams seemed to come to an end when Sonia Gandhi finally pushed the aged Kesri out of the way. An enraged Pawar then
raised the issue of her citizenship, and was subsequently expelled from the Congress (I).
Today, I believe that Sharad Pawar is once again thinking of resuming his seat at the Union Cabinet table. The basic assumption behind his thinking is the calculation that the general election of 2004 shall follow the pattern of those in 1989, 1991, 1996, 1998, and 1999 -- when no single party could win a simple majority in the Lok Sabha.
As I understand, the Mumbai strongman believes that no party is in a position to win more than 150 seats at most. (This means that the Congress (I) will gain some seats at the expense of the Bharatiya Janata Party, but not enough to form a government.)
Who will be the prime minister in such a situation? Sharad Pawar thinks he will be superbly placed in this scenario. He will have the backing of everyone from Maharashtra, whether in the Congress (I) or the Nationalist Congress Party. He calculates that he can draw some support from some parties who are currently in the National Democratic Alliance -- such as the Trinamool Congress -- in the name of 'secularism.'
The Left Front is no admirer of Pawar, but do the Marxists dislike him enough to oppose him? And, finally, he is ideally placed to draw support from a large section of the parent Congress (I) itself.
Let us assume that Pawar's hypothesis is correct, and that neither the BJP nor the Congress can throw up a leader who can pull together a coalition. But is there a lack of other strong regional chieftains? Names such as Jayalalithaa, Chandrababu Naidu, Mulayam Singh Yadav, and (Heaven have mercy on us!) Laloo Prasad Yadav spring to mind. But Pawar believes that he is better placed than any of them.
Jayalalithaa will be at least as unpopular as Pawar given her own backing for the theory that Sonia Gandhi's Italian origins
automatically disqualify her from the highest post. Chandrababu Naidu has few associates outside Andhra Pradesh. Mulayam Singh Yadav is handicapped by the presence of Mayawati, and Laloo Prasad Yadav is simply too much of an embarrassment.
I believe Sharad Pawar's criticism of Sonia Gandhi was a signal to India that an experienced administrator and politician is waiting in the wings. 'Deputy Prime Minister' has a nice ring to it, but Sharad Pawar will tell you that 'Prime Minister' is sweeter yet!