How Sharad Pawar Took on the BJP and Emerged Victorious

The grassroots politician's command over state politics is aided by the goodwill and networks he has built over four decades.

After the sudden, shock swearing-in of Ajit Pawar as the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra early on Sunday morning, two narratives emerged from the Sharad Pawar camp. The first message was that this was not just a political matter but a question of family loyalty, suggesting that Ajit Pawar had betrayed the trust of his uncle. Sharad Pawar’s daughter and Ajit’s cousin Supriya Sule changed her WhatsApp status to “party and family split”.

But Sharad Pawar, family patriarch and the undisputed leader of the Nationalist Congress Party and the most experienced politician in Maharashtra, also let it be known that he would fight the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine. “History shows Maharashtra doesn’t bow down before the throne of Delhi,” said a banner outside the office of the NCP. It echoed what Pawar Sr had said after the Enforcement Directorate named him in a money laundering case just before the state elections: “Maharashtra follows the ideology of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj. We don’t bow before the Delhi ‘takht‘ (throne).”

The latter references the long-standing, deeply embedded mythology among Marathas – Sharad Pawar is one – that they never buckled under the dominance of the Mughal Empire. Shivaji was captured and kept in custody in Agra from where he escaped, but he never accepted the suzerainty of Aurangzeb. It has a resonance in modern times too, not just for Pawar but also for the Shiv Sena.

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But for the Pawars, it was equally important that family unity not be disturbed. Not one person from the NCP or the Pawar family said anything personal against Ajit Pawar and the latter too made it clear that Sharad Pawar remained his leader. This opened the door for talks and over the past two days, many feelers and emissaries were sent out to the nephew that he would be welcomed if he came back.

At the same time, all efforts were made to ensure that no NCP MLAs strayed and that Ajit Pawar’s hopes that he could lure support crashed pretty early. Pawar senior is too much of a politician to be swayed by sentiment.

Devendra Fadnavis (L) and Ajit Pawar (R) after taking oath. In the middle is Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari. Photo: PTI

Modi-Shah’s tactics prove unsuccessful

With this, Pawar has proved that tactics deployed by the Modi-Shah combine successfully in other states cannot work in Maharashtra, not as long as he is around. Investigating agencies, pliant governors, willing presidents and money and muscle were not a match for the political acumen of one man who had none of these advantages.

Pawar outmatched the duo in Delhi not just because of his complete command over state politics, but because of the goodwill and the networks he has built over four decades. Unlike Modi and Shah, he does not evoke fear among his supporters, but regard and respect. Pawar never forgets a slight, but his empire is not built on fear. Pawar is a grassroots man, in touch with his party leaders and workers, but also with friends across the political spectrum and among people from all walks of life. During a tour to his constituency Baramati some years ago, he could be seen mingling with local party workers, asking not just questions about work but also their families.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Photo: Reuters

He is as likely to be spotted at a cultural event as hobnobbing with top industrialists, as ready to speak on literature as irrigation. He has been a political advisor to those not in his party: Bal Thackeray and he were friends and Uddhav is said to consult Pawar regularly. Uddhav Thackeray almost certainly would not have been able to stand up to Modi and Shah without Pawar’s backing.

Allegations of corruption have always swirled around him but no charges have ever been brought, much less anything proved. When his name came up in an ED complaint, it was the first time any agency had mentioned him; Pawar turned it around and offered to come by the ED office to be questioned—the matter fizzled out instantly. His closest allies such as Ajit Pawar, Praful Patel and Chaggan Bhujbal have all been named in some scandal or the other, but not Sharad Pawar.

Betrayal and duplicity

But his political life, which began under the mentorship of Y.B. Chavan, is also replete with incidents of betrayal and duplicity. In 1978, as a minister under chief minister Vasantdada Patil, he walked out overnight, taking MLAs with him, to join the Janata Party to form the Progressive Democratic Front government. The NCP was formed when he left the Congress objecting to Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, and then his party joined hands with the Congress to run Maharashtra for 15 years. Through that period, the NCP made life difficult for its partner.

Yet, Sonia Gandhi gladly let him take charge of the campaign of the NCP-Congress combine, saying to her protesting colleagues that her own party had no one of that stature. He more than vindicated that faith and the BJP lost its hold over India’s richest state.

His reputation as a canny politician who was likely to play both sides against the middle and play games is such that the first reaction of most observers after Ajit Pawar got sworn in was that somehow Pawar senior was behind it. It seemed plausible, given Sharad Pawar’s complex mind and propensity to manipulate events, except that such a plan would have damaged his daughter Supriya Sule’s future, something that her father would never allow.

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Managing the family and ensuring some level of harmony has become Sharad Pawar’s biggest challenge, and things are only going to get more difficult. Ajit Pawar, once his uncle’s blue-eyed boy, has been chafing at not being able to rise beyond a point. He has long wanted to become chief minister and is said to feel that his uncle has not promoted him as much as he could have. He feels that Pawar senior is investing more in his daughter.

Matters came to a head during the Lok Sabha elections in 2019, when Ajit Pawar’s son Parth Pawar lost in Maval constituency while another grandnephew, Rohit, won. The Ajit Pawar camp is convinced that the party did not throw its weight behind Parth. But in the end, Ajit Pawar did come back, not only because his supporters left him for Pawar Sr, but also because family and friends put a lot of pressure on him.

Sharad Pawar and Sonia Gandhi. Credit: PTI/Files

Victory in round 1, but challenges remain

This round has definitely gone to Sharad Pawar and the media is now anointing him the ‘real Chanakya’. There are enough conspiracy theorists who will say that he orchestrated the entire thing, including sending Ajit Pawar to the BJP and then pulling him back, thus humiliating the BJP. Sharad Pawar is capable of anything, including such devious plots, they will say.

But his challenges are only beginning – he has to ensure that the government between unlikely partners performs well; it will have to face a strong and bitter BJP and sooner or later, the contradictions within the coalition will surface.

Within his own party, the simmering rivalry between the next generation will not disappear. He has to effect some lasting equilibrium that will not damage the party in the short and long term. He has to set in place a succession plan and also ensure the future political career of his daughter while also building an institution that will outlast him.

During the run-up to the state elections, several of his party leaders defected to other parties and there is speculation that Ajit Pawar still enjoys the support of a number of MLAs. They may be biding their time. For the moment, however, it is Pawar Sr who dominates not just his own party but the state’s politics – he has not just humbled the BJP chieftains but also put paid to the career of Devendra Fadnavis and subdued Ajit Pawar. After three days of stress, he can look back at the results with satisfaction.