Did Pawar win? Wait and watch.
This may or may not be a good thing but it hardly seems like a major victory for Sharad Pawar, long regarded as one of the shrewdest politicians in India.
But here's my take: the key to understanding Pawar lies in recognising that he doesn't care about public relations. He only cares about power. (Okay, he cares about money too.) Until we know the contours of the real deal that the NCP struck with the Congress and what it will do to the power equations between the two parties, we cannot judge the results of Sharad Pawar's revolt. Yes, it has been a public relations defeat. But for Pawar, that's not really important.
When the UPA government was formed, it was automatically assumed that the NCP would be a difficult ally. After all, Pawar had nearly become Prime Minister in 1991. He had a difficult equation with Rajiv Gandhi, who had tried to sack him as Maharashtra chief minister in 1990. After Sonia Gandhi took over as Congress President, Pawar raised the foreign origin issue and split the Congress. Even though the Congress and the NCP entered into an alliance of convenience in Maharashtra, it is no secret that Pawar wanted out of this alliance in 2004 and negotiated unsuccessfully with the BJP for a new partnership.
So, when the first UPA government was formed and NCP members demanded a senior portfolio for Pawar (he had been defence minister in the early 90s) only to find that their leader was denied home, finance, defence or external affairs and had to be content with agriculture, it was widely believed that Pawar would sulk and create problems.
In fact, the opposite has happened. The NCP has been a loyal ally at the Centre. Whenever the UPA has faced a crisis, such as the battle over the nuclear deal, it has always received steady support from Pawar and his party. Nor has the NCP protested when it has not got its fair share. For instance, when Praful Patel moved out of civil aviation, he expected a substantial ministry. Instead, he was given an inconsequential portfolio. Though the NCP made its objections clear, it did nothing to rock the boat.
While Pawar and Sonia Gandhi are hardly the best of friends - understandable, given their history - the Maratha strongman has a working relationship with Manmohan Singh. And Praful Patel gets along well with Sonia, serving as his party's emissary.
Given this background, why did Pawar revolt? And more significant, why has Pawar been such an obliging ally within the UPA all these years?
The answer lies in Pawar's change of course. When he split the Congress and formed the NCP, he genuinely believed that Sonia Gandhi was unelectable, that the Congress would wither and shrink and that Congressmen would flock to Pawar as their new leader. Over the years, however, he has scaled down his national ambitions. He does not dispute that he is a possible compromise Prime Minister in a Third Front scenario but he recognises that he is essentially a regional, rather than national, leader. So, the NCP has gone from being a pan-Indian alternative to the Congress to becoming a regional party in Maharashtra. The problem with this identity is that the NCP cannot win an election in Maharashtra on its own. To take power in the state, it needs an ally.
Of the available alliance partners, the Congress is easily the best bet. There is a common inheritance so the DNA is shared and most Congress leaders in Maharashtra have grown up accepting Pawar's supremacy. Other allies are less convenient. The BJP lacks the numbers. So does the MNS and in any alliance with the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray would insist on being the boss.
Pawar's strategy over the last six years has been simple. He has played along with whatever the Congress wants in Delhi as long as he has his way in Maharashtra. The Congress claims to have the upper hand in the state because it always keeps the chief ministership. But while Congress chief ministers come and go, it is the NCP that wields the real power in Maharashtra. Builders, politicians, bureaucrats or businessmen who deal with a Congress chief minister know that there is every possibility that the CM will be sacked next week. (The Congress has had four chief ministers in Maharashtra during the alliance; five if you count Vilasrao's two terms as two distinct spells in office.) But when you deal with the NCP, you deal with Pawar. And he goes on forever.
As long as Pawar has been able to run Maharashtra his own way, he has not really cared too much about the situation in Delhi. But over the last few weeks, the problems between the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra have boiled over.
The NCP's deputy chief minister, Ajit Pawar, is barely on civil terms with the Congress chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan. Individual NCP ministers find their wings clipped. And Chavan, who is scrupulously honest himself, constantly threatens enquiries into scams in which NCP ministers may be involved.
The breakdown of relations between the Congress and the NCP in Maharashtra means that Pawar no longer rules the state by proxy. His men are in government but they can hardly do whatever they like.
The revolt in Delhi was not about the number two position in the government or a portfolio for his daughter Supriya Sule, as the press reported. It was about securing an assurance from the Congress that Chavan would be reined in and that it would be back to business as usual in Maharashtra.
None of us on the outside know whether Pawar was able to wrest any assurances in this regard from the Congress leadership. Journalists have suggested that Pawar wanted Chavan removed. I doubt if this is true. Pawar's style is much subtler than that. He will have asked the Congress to get Chavan to back off and left the prospect of a change in leadership hanging for discussions at a future stage.
The only way to judge whether the NCP's revolt was successful is to wait and see. Do things change in Maharashtra? Does Chavan give NCP ministers the freedom to return to their old ways?
It will take a couple of months to work that out. Till then, we should suspend judgement.
It is tempting to see the revolt as a failure because Pawar got nothing of consequence in Delhi. But it would be a mistake to do so.
The provocation and the answer do not lie in Delhi. They lie in Bombay.
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