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The mighty Maratha's fall
September 11, 2006
Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar is furious, arguably with just cause. There he was, quietly minding his own business, backing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on every occasion, taking great care not to dabble in party versus government politics like other allies (not that he would find much purchase along that slippery incline, given his less than cordial relationship with Sonia Gandhi, but that's another matter) when whoosh! Suddenly Sharadrao Govindrao Pawar is the worst kind of politician you could find in the United Progressive Alliance government with connectionsÂ to all kinds of unsavoury elements. Worse, it is being said he is promoting his kin to ensure his assets were closely held.
How did the mighty slide so fast? The downfall began somewhere in the beginning of 2005, when Sharad Pawar decided to contest elections for the Board of Cricket Control in India again. Much of that year was spent first lobbying, then consolidating his position and then trying to free the BCCI of the tentacles of Jagmohan Dalmiya, the elements that had caused his defeat earlier. As anyone involved in cricket politics knows, it is hard to reach the pinnacle of cricket administration in India and harder still to stay there. Understandably, it occupied a lot of Pawar's time and attention. But the agriculture ministry needed attention too, and so did the alliance between his party, the Nationalist Congress Party and the Congress in government in Maharashtra.
In August 2005, Pawar went to Rome, for a meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organisation. No one was particularly keen to let him go, but the prime minister permitted him. Coincidentally, in Rome were also present a large number of land developers, people associated with the real estate industry and minor Indian businessmen. As they were there independent of the minister, there was no impropriety there.
The next two months were spent in a high octane campaign for the BCCI election. By October-November 2005, it was clear that India was on the brink of a wheat shortage. The prime minister began signaling that the agriculture ministry should prepare itself for imports. Because procurement by the Food Corporation of India had fallen sharply that year and there was a global shortage of wheat, the danger was that wheat supplied to ration shops might fall short. That thought was too horrible to contemplate.
The agriculture ministry thought about it. And thought about it. And thought about it. Wheat began disappearing. Explaining the situation, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (another UPA ally) inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. 'We oppose wheat import,' said the spokesman importantly, 'because we think Indian farmers' wheat should be bought by the government. Right now, the government is not procuring the wheat, it is the multinationals who are buying it and stashing it away. We want Indian farmers to provide wheat to India.'
The prime minister flagged the danger of a wheat shortage in DecemberÂ 2005. Imports began in February this year. Wheat traders denied strenuously, the charge that in the intervening period they had stashed away the commodity until prices rose. 'Where would we store such large quantities,' they asked. They also denied charges of round-tripping -- wheat procured from India, sent out of India and later resold to the Indian government after a hefty markup.
Worse followed. There were suggestions from some foreign entities that phytosanitary standards of wheat imported by India had been altered to help other foreign entities. The ministry realised that the amount of wheat already imported would not be enough; so tenders were called for another tranche. Even before the tenders were opened, in a momentary fit of absentmindedness, the agriculture minister made a policy announcement that import duty for private sector importers (already down from 50 per cent to 5 per cent) would now be zero per cent. Sensing a rush of buyers from India, global bidders pushed up prices. At the time of writing, officials of the agriculture ministry, fearing an investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General, were scurrying around trying to beat down global bidders.
The hamhanded handling of imports by a minister who has the reputation of being one of the most astute and progressive administrators of our times is at once baffling and disappointing. So you could ask why the prime minister is letting this happen. The answer is clear -- it is politics.
Surrounded by allies who, when pushed to the wall, have a stock response (Soniaji se baat ho gayi hai), the PM must feel helpless sometimes. In Cabinet meetings, whether it is the question of reservations in the private sector or education or contamination in soft drinks, Pawar has backed the PM unreservedly with rare sensitivity. That's because Sonia Gandhi will not give him the time of day.
But now Pawar is angry and with justification. The Telgi tapes are three years old. They are in the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation which reports to the PM. How could a three-year-old narco-analysis videotape find its way to TV studios? The tapes show a drugged Telgi repeatedly naming Pawar -- among others -- as having helped him in the stamp paper scam. True, Telgi's credibility is nil. But that is not the point. What is more, the government is silent on the Telgi "revelation". What does all this mean?
The NCP has named his daughter Supriya Sule as its candidate for a Rajya Sabha seat. With nephew Ajit Pawar in charge of the party and daughter in Delhi, Pawar too has taken the line of least resistance and reverted to the family business model of politics, disappointing as it may be. It is hard to see how this will work. Ajit Pawar has made his share of enemies by taking action against many past members of the NCP. Many more are out of favour and they will gravitate to Pawar's daughter for justice. So two poles of power are inevitable.
The next few months are going to be as much a challenge for the agriculture minister as they will be for the prime minister. But something has to give. Maybe the municipal elections in Maharashtra early next year will be a turning point.