On the face of it, Sharad Pawar should have been down if not out.
He went into the state assembly elections with several handicaps. He was facing a strong and confident BJP, his own party men were deserting him and his coalition partner, Congress, was in disarray.
Just a few weeks before the election, he had – for the first time in his life – received a summon from the Enforcement Directorate and his trusted lieutenant Praful Patel was being charged for a real estate deal involving the late Iqbal Mirchi, an underworld figure.
Yet, it is Pawar, who is almost 80, and who has emerged triumphant by winning more seats than the last time, taking away crucial ones from the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. The two will still form the government, but it will be a weak one, with many internal pulls and pressures that he, the astute politician that he is, will manipulate and exploit in the days to come.
The opposition in the state had been completely written off before the elections. Most political commentators had criticised Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) for not putting up much of an effort. In addition, the media was tacitly and sometimes openly, supporting the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
Yet most got it wrong.
Not just Pawar’s shrewdness, his extreme doggedness is the reason for his success. Last week, as the rains continued to pound several parts of western Maharashtra, Pawar decided to address a rally in Satara, a crucial constituency for him.
In a Lok Sabha byelection, his long term supporter Udayanraje Bhonsale, a descendant of Shivaji, was now chosen as a BJP MP candidate. Pawar had selected Shriniwas Patil, a former governor of Sikkim and an IAS officer who had more or less retired from active politics to go against Bhonsale.
Pawar stepped on the stage in the heavy rain and delivered his speech, asking his supporters to vote for the party.
This image went viral, signalling not just his resolve but his willingness to be one with the common people, who were also standing in the rain. Soon, the man who had been virtually written off only days ago, was back in the news.
Similarly, when he received the ED notice, he decided to go to its office the very next day. He had not even been summoned.
As his supporters gathered at the venue, the agency panicked and requested him not to come — the narrative changed and showed him as a man who would not be intimidated. Pawar has often said that as a Maratha he would not bow to the ‘tanashahi’ (autocracy) of Delhi, which harks back to legends going back to Shivaji, who refused to accept the suzerainty of the Mughals.
In the present times, however, the reference is clear.
At a time when the opposition had all but been pushed to irrelevance and there have been several internal conflicts in both Congress and NCP, Pawar single-handedly managed to bring back the focus on the coalition.
He was one of the few leaders who was seen touring around the state. While BJP leaders, including the party’s national leaders, focused on rhetorical themes like nationalism and Kashmir, Pawar kept harping over the issues of the state like the severe agrarian and economic crisis.
Just days before the election, Pawar’s name had emerged in a cooperative bank scam along with his nephew Ajit. Pawar was prompt in calling this “BJP’s desperate attempt to malign” him and his family members and accused the current dispensation of “vendetta politics”.
While BJP had hoped to dampen the veteran leader’s spirit, he was prompt in changing the discourse in the state. Several NCP supporters, especially the youth, came out in support of their leader.
The party was able to convert the support into votes and manage a win in almost 53 seats, 12 more than the last assembly polls in 2014. NCP contested in fewer seats than its ally Congress, but has fared a lot better than the latter. Congress has managed to retain most of its earlier seats, winning in as many as 43 by last estimate. In 2014, the party had won 42 seats.
Pawar is a shrewd politician who maintains a friendly relationship with both the ruling as well as the opposition parties.
In October 2014, when the Congress was demoralised after the poor showing in the general elections in May, his party had contested on its own. The BJP and Sena too had contested separately. Even before the final results were declared, Pawar was prompt in expressing his eagerness to form an alliance with the BJP.
The BJP used the leverage but finally tied up with Sena instead. Pawar had, by then, moved on to the Congress. The alliance with Congress has worked smoothly ever since, a far cry from the uneasy relationship during the 15 years the two were in government in the state.
This time around many Congress workers were uneasy about tying up with NCP but were firmly told that there was no option since the grand old party had no face which could lead it to victory.
In the Lok Sabha elections, the NCP had managed to retain just the four seats it had won in the 2014 election. The party, which has tremendous support among Marathas, who form 35% of the population, has a significant hold in western Maharashtra. BJP has tried every trick in the book to woo this community, even introducing a reservation in government jobs and education, but there has been no major shift.
Knowing Pawar and his political sharpness, several within NCP and Congress had hinted at the possible alliance with the Sena to keep the BJP at bay.
However, the NCP supremo has put all speculations at rest and at the media briefing in Mumbai has claimed that he is not considering an alliance with Sena for now. “We had hoped for better performance but we are humbled by the response we have got in the state. The Congress and our other allies have tried their best to fight this election and given the circumstances in which the election was fought, we are happy with the results,” he said.
The man who was once declared as his ‘political guru’ by Narendra Modi still has to contend with several issues.
There is dissent within his extended family – two grandnephews have been getting restless and want to become the heirs apparent. Pawar’s own nephew, Ajit, who fancies himself as his successor in the state, is reeling under corruption charges and is unsure whether he will take over.
Sharad Pawar’s own daughter Supriya Sule, a capable parliamentarian, does not have a mass connect at the same level as her father. The master player now has to think of a succession plan that will keep the party and the family going.
At this moment, however, it is he who is holding the cards in the state. The BJP may be back in the saddle with its partner, or rather ‘frenemy’, but it would do well to keep an eye on that old warhorse from Baramati.