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Why Sharad Pawar may still spring a surprise

September 08, 2013 18:14 IST

The veteran politician’s announcement to quit active politics may just be another instance where he has gone back on his word, says Neeta Kolhatkar.

Early this May, Union Agriculture Minister and Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar took everyone by surprise when he told mediapersons that he won't contest the next Lok Sabha elections. However, the news didn’t make the waves that it should’ve -- it would have had it been for the first time that Pawar said it.

In fact previously Pawar did make a mention of wanting to retire from politics and focus on his party activities, besides concentrating on cricket administration. Interestingly, although most think he has prepared the pitch for his future, Pawar will not retire from politics. Among the many reasons, the fact remains that Pawar’s reputation precedes him.

In 2004, when Chhagan Bhujbal got the public works department in Maharashtra, the news doing the rounds was that he wasn’t too happy with the berth, as he was expecting the home ministry. Sharad Pawar was at a public function where I’d asked him on camera for his reaction to Bhujbal being unhappy. I distinctly remember him replying that if Bhujbal wasn’t happy he should leave the party.

Within half an hour, Pawar had changed his statement when other news channels got wind of the news. Pawar promptly changed his statement to: If Bhujbal isn’t happy he should focus on building the party.

I was livid because that resulted in my news becoming redundant and, worse still, my bosses wouldn’t believe me.

However, since then even the bosses have seen the bigger picture, that Pawar often changed his statement. Speak to Pawar's confidants, and they say the fact is that few continue to believe what he says. Nothing he says is beyond that moment, as he is likely to change his mind frequently.

Now that really shouldn’t come as a surprise because when one sees Pawar’s career, his fickle-mindedness is reflected in his party affiliations.

Pawar left the Indian National Congress when the 12th Lok Sabha was dissolved in 1999, after prime minister A B Vajpayee's government fell and no one else -- including the Congress -- could form a govenment, to set up the Nationalist Congress Party along with two of his other colleagues. His reason was that they wanted someone with an Indian origin to lead the country rather than Sonia Gandhi, an Italian-born.

However, immediately after the election results, Pawar realised he didn’t have the adequate numbers -- even at the state-level -- to form the  government single-handedly, and struck an alliance with the very same Congress party.

Many who were infuriated that a foreign national was a contender for prime minister’s post and relieved that a politician like Pawar had rebelled against it, felt let down by Pawar joining hands with the same lady again.

In fact, he had first broken away from Congress in 1978 when he formed the Progressive Democratic Front. In 1978 he joined the coalition government with the Janata Party and for the first time became the chief minister of Maharashtra. Then he joined back the Congress under former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and became chief minister two more times.

Pawar’s close aides and critics will accept one point, that he is a man who lives and breathes politics. Even in his choice of contesting for a sports body, Pawar’s political mind opted for the prosperous cricket. In 2005, Pawar first became president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and then in 2010 president of the International Cricket Council.

Recollect how the former formidable president of BCCI, Jagmohan Dalmiya, staunchly opposed Sharad Pawar and took him to court for his dismissal, and was a spent force for over five years.

The fact is that while Pawar, who is often criticised for not showing loyalty to the Congress party that mentored him, however expects immense loyalty from his party leaders and aides. Pawar is one politician who has craved for post and power. One cannot ignore the fact he was a dynamic, powerful leader from Maharashtra, often named as one who could have been the prime minister. That yearning saw him getting stifled in a party where intense loyalty, patience and endurance seemed to have been the key qualities in the selection of chief minister and other top posts.

While most say he is unreliable, sources at the Centre say that nevertheless Congress president Sonia Gandhi relies on his advice on not only Maharashtra but at the national-level too. Such is his political awareness.

While it is a fact that the Congress is ideologically opposed to any regional party, both the NCP and Trinamool Congress are breakaway parties that have become formidable regional powers. Pawar has ensured that the party gains strength in rural areas, winning panchayat polls and elections to several government bodies, to counter the same Congress. Ask his partymen about Pawar’s desire to retire and they either change the topic or smile without saying anything.

Pawar oversees every decision in his party and even in Maharashtra where it is sharing power with the Congress. Even though he indulge in a game of snakes and ladders frequently with the Congress, his aides believe that even a statement, like him wanting to retire from politics, is to put the latter in a fix. The fact is Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan is said to have blunted the NCP’s domination in the state cabinet. He has managed to control the over-exuberant Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, nephew of Sharad Pawar. And that is precisely why many Congressmen believe that this is yet another Pawar’s salvo against the Congress party.

And a warning to his partymen, too. Many are aware that while the state activities are being handled by Ajit Pawar, the uncle is the final decision-maker.

Many NCP leaders believe that Pawar is already focused on preparing the party for the next elections. Despite his health concerns, which have been around since he underwent intensive treatment for mouth cancer, Pawar is known for his grit and determination, and his passion for politics.

No wonder people in the NCP and Congress brush aside any talk of his retirement like pushing away a bothersome fly.

Photograph: Danish Siddique/Reuters

Neeta Kolhatkar