New Delhi: It was power play at its best. Maratha strongman and Nationalist Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar on Thursday flexed his muscles and showed his huge clout in the political arena when he celebrated his birthday party at Vigyan Bhawan in the Capital.
The event was attended by the who’s who of politics, with the parade led by President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, followed closely by Congress leader sonia Gandhi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and various opposition stalwarts and state chief ministers.
The question being asked in Lutyens Delhi is whether the shrewd NCP leader has set his sights on Raisina Hill, with the election of the president less than two years away. Sharad Pawar turns 75 on December 12 but was this show of strength – at an iconic venue normally reserved for official events – just his way of celebrating a personal milestone or was it intended to send a signal that the powerful leader from Baramati has friends across the political spectrum and is a man for all seasons?
Seats of power
It was a star studded gathering, which any leader worth his political salt would have given his right arm for.
President Pranab Mukherjee, Vice President Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, former UP chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, former Bihar chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav and CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Sharad Pawar and his wife Pratibha Pawar were all on the dais along with the master of ceremonies, Praful Patel.
Sonia Gandhi, who has had a chequered relationship with Pawar in the past, had not given her consent to attend the Vigyan Bhawan function. She had only said she would let the organisers know. But on Wednesday, in an unusual move, Sharad Pawar accompanied by Praful Patel and daughter Supriya Sule visited Sonia Gandhi to wish her on her birthday. The invitation to attend Pawar’s celebrations was repeated and she finally said yes, say sources in the Congress party. The late consent could not allow her name to be printed on the invitation card.
Not only did Sonia Gandhi attend, she also spoke at the function, mixing humour with heavy praise for Pawar the politician while also admitting that the two had had major differences in the past on many occasions. Son Rahul was also present, sitting below with senior Congress leaders and Union ministers.
An NCP leader admitted that the absence of Sonia Gandhi from the gathering would have sent a negative message and the NCP leadership did not want that at this stage.
Also attending the gathering were Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje Scindia, Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis, Union ministers Arun Jaitley, Venkaiah Naidu, JP Nadda, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, opposition leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Mallkarjun Kharge, senior Congress leaders Ahmed Patel, Motilal Vora, Janardhan Dwivedi, Digvijaya Singh, former governor and Congress leader Shivraj Patil, former home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, JD(U) leaders Sharad Yadav and KC Tyagi, and a large number of present and former MPs, of both the houses of parliament.
Man for all seasons
Sharad Pawar was first elected as a Congress MLA in Maharashtra back in 1967 and rose through the ranks but left the party in 1978 to ally with the Janata party. In 1987, he returned to the Congress, only to leave it in 1999 on the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins.
In 2004, he patched up with the Congress president and proposed her name for prime ministership; when Manmohan Singh was sworn in as prime minister, Pawar served as the Union agriculture minister in his government.
Interestingly, the last big birthday celebrations to be held at Vigyan Bhawan featured another heavyweight Maratha politician, the late Shankarrao (SB) Chavan, who was home minister at the time in the government of Narasimha Rao.
Pawar’s big birthday bash was a message of power, of networking across parties and people, of a lifetime invested in human relations. The prime minister released an autobiography of the NCP leader titled, On My Terms; a short film profiled Sharad Pawar the leader who began his political career in the Youth Congress, went on to become the youngest chief minister at 38, and who fought illness and cancer and is now ready for a new innings in the future. Has he set his eyes on Raisina Hill, is the question being asked in the corridors of power.
Note: This story, which was published before the event, has been updated to include details of the Vigyan Bhavan function