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Pawar settles the Chanakya question. Sorry, Modi-Shah, you lose

By SAISURESH SIVASWAMY
November 27, 2019 08:21 IST

Thanks to Sharad Pawar and him alone, Maharashtra has shown that the Modi-Shah duo can be halted.
The next step is to take the battle to Dilli, says Saisuresh Sivaswamy.

Sharad Pawar, right, and Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray, centre, with Nationalist Congress Party, Congress and Shiv Sena leaders in Mumbai, November 25, 2019. Photograph: Mitesh Bhuvad/PTI Photo

IMAGE: Sharad Pawar, right and Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray, centre, with Nationalist Congress Party, Congress and Shiv Sena leaders in Mumbai, November 25, 2019. Photograph: Mitesh Bhuvad/PTI Photo
 

There are any number of ways to parse the political blitzkrieg that rattled Maharashtra these last four days.

It can be read as the stymieing of the Bharatiya Janata Party which, with 105 freshly-minted MLAs, does have the best claim to form the next government among all contestants.

Two, it can be read as Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi and BJP President Amit Anilchandra Shah's legitimate use of all and every means at their disposal to assume power in Maharashtra. Politics is about power, with everything else -- including the public weal -- flowing from it, so what is wrong with a political party making a play for it?

Three, it can be seen as yet another example of how Constitutional institutions tasked with upholding morality in public life were bent to fulfil the ruling party's lust for power.

Finally, it can be read as the saga of a 78-year-old politician who, just a couple of months ago, had his political obituaries written. Former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis even arrogantly declared that Sharad Pawar's 'era was over'.

But on Tuesday, November 26, the wily Pawar showed one and all that age cannot wither him nor custom stale his infinite variety of politics (with apologies to the Bard).

The political developments can be read as any of the above, or even as all of the above, but it still won't be complete.

The proper way to read Maharashtra's politics of the last couple of weeks is to see in it the emergence of a coalition, however inchoate, that has the potential to halt the BJP juggernaut which, so far, has seemed unstoppable with state after state falling before its onward march.

A tripartite government will now assume office in Maharashtra whose contours are peculiar. Whoever said politics makes for strange bedfellows would be fulfilled on seeing Maharashtra.

Consider this: The Congress and Nationalist Congress Party, which fought the election against the BJP-Shiv Sena, will support the latter, whose ideological moorings are antipodal to theirs.

And yet here they are, willing to trade in their differences and form a government together which, they pledge, will complete its full term.

This is not sheer anti-BJPism, as critics have been quick to charge.

Neither is it opportunism, as even non-critics have pointed out.

Nor is it only about power.

Or even survival.

There is an element of all of them in why the three parties are doing what they are doing, but that is not Sharad Pawar's game as he is not playing for small stakes.

To imagine that he was so slighted by the BJP's charges against him and his party during the elections that he has vowed to teach them a lesson is to misread his mission.

There is a popular meme doing the rounds of WhatsApp, that adda of the under-employed: 'If you see Sharad Pawar at Delhi airport,' it goes, 'he will buy a ticket for Mumbai, he will carry a boarding pass for Kolkata and he will land in Chennai.'

Certainly apocryphal, but it sums up the veteran's reputation for not letting anyone second-guess him.

Not only is such a man difficult to fool, but he also usually gets the measure of others.

Which was why, ever since Saturday morning when his nephew Ajit Pawar walked away in a fit of pique and aligned with the very party that had run down his family during the election campaign, everyone quickly jumped to the conclusion that it was all part of Sharad Pawar's great game.

Pawar Sr wily politician that he is, it was quickly concluded, was hunting with the Shiv Sena-Congress hounds and running with the BJP hares.

This line of thinking -- what is Sharad Pawar really up to? -- was popular pastime till Tuesday afternoon when it became known that the prodigal nephew was after all returning home.

Even then, those trying to read Sharad Pawar's mind wouldn't give up. Ajit Pawar's rebellion and subsequent recant was all Pawar's play. He smartly got his nephew to go across to the BJP, get the irrigation scam probes against him nixed, and return home, it was now said.

It's all so wrong. The truth is, Pawar is playing for big stakes, and he has only made his opening gambit.

For him, it is 1999 all over again.

That was when a newly-minted Sonia Gandhi as Congress president decided to have a cup of tea with the AIADMK's J Jayalalithaa in full glare of media. The bill was footed by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee when it led to the collapse of his 13-month old government. As Sonia gleefully announced to the world from the steps of Rashtrapati Bhavan that she had 272 MPs with her, Pawar showed her it wasn't so.

Historically, Marathas have influenced the Dilli sultanate while never occupying it. Pawar's mentor Yashwantrao Chavan, it was felt, would break this jinx. When he didn't, the spotlight was on Pawar to fulfil his destiny. His shift to Delhi from Mumbai was part of the grand design and it was said he was merely biding his time there.

After Rajiv Gandhi's assassination he did throw his hat into the ring, but was persuaded to withdraw and P V Narasimha Rao, who was about to enter retired life, was pulled out of mothballs and installed as PM.

Having countenanced this once, Pawar was not willing to let himself be coaxed into playing second fiddle to someone whose sole qualification for the top job was homemaker.

After breaking the Congress in 1999 he has shown that he is more than capable of defending his home turf Maharashtra.

Ambition is a crazy thing. It doesn't let you rest, but like an itch keeps chafing you. Who knows how 2014 could have gone for the Congress party if the then chief minister from Gujarat had not sprung out of nowhere?

Having halted Rahul Gandhi's mother for her lack of experience, would Sharad Pawar have meekly allowed her greenhorn son to assume the Dilli singhasan?

Five-and-a-half years of Prime Minister Modi and BJP President Shah have created a smokescreen of invincibility around them. There were self-styled contenders like Arvind Kejriwal who quickly learnt that politics is a Test match, not a T20 and gave up aggression for a defensive stance. Even fellow travellers like Nitish Kumar, who could have withstood the gale, chose to embrace it instead. But Pawar alone has kept at it, biding his time patiently like he has done before.

On March 11, 2017, writing on how to defeat Modi in elections, I said: 'To the question 'Can Modi be halted?' the answer is, yes, he can be stopped. But will it happen? No.'

'For, given that our political parties usually put ego before survival, it is highly unlikely, and Shah-Modi will continue to have a merry run.'

In the way he has midwifed the tripartite arrangement in Maharashtra, convincing the Congress leadership to overcome its anathema for the Shiv Sena and persuading his own party to agree to go along, even seeing to it that his family is not the beneficiary from such an arrangement (which made his nephew lose his head for four days), Sharad Pawar has put his ego aside.

Another of those popular memes has been 'Who was the real Chanakya of Indian politics, Amit Shah or Sharad Pawar?' The answer kept oscillating in the breakneck speed of developments in Maharashtra, before settling down on Tuesday evening to a conclusion: Amit Shah had met his match in the soon to be 79 year old politician.

So if you still think that Sharad Pawar was doing all this to avenge the insults heaped on him, or to put an end to Fadnavis's 'era', you are still not getting it.

Thanks to him and him alone, Maharashtra has shown that the Modi-Shah duo can be halted. His next step is to take the battle to Dilli.

Will he succeed? Who knows? But surely, the game is on!


Saisuresh Sivaswamy has been a journalist for 35 years and wrote his very first column for Rediff.com on January 25, 1997. You can read his columns here.
Sai (as he is known) usually writes on politics, but once in a while you will find him reviewing the odd film, especially if it features Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan.
You can mail him at sai@rediff.co.in.

SAISURESH SIVASWAMY / Rediff.com
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