What is his gameplan?

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PAWAR POLITICS

Photo: AFP

Sharad Pawar is trying to wrangle more political heft from the Congress. But will his strategy pay off? Rana Ayyub weighs the odds

“Just look at what happened to (N) Chandrababu Naidu and (HD) Deve Gowda, who were once an integral part of coalition governments. Where are they today? We don’t want to be one of them and go into political oblivion.”
A senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) politician considered close to Sharad Pawar.

ON WEDNESDAY, 25 July, a few hours after Pranab Mukherjee was sworn in as president, the Congress gave in to the first of the post-Pranab political challenges for the UPA government. It agreed to the NCP’s demand for coordination committees to oversee the governments in Maharashtra and New Delhi. This ended Sharad Pawar’s attempt at brinkmanship and his threat to resign from the Union Cabinet, an episode that brought into focus the vulnerabilities of the UPA — and eclipsed Rahul Gandhi’s announcement that he would be playing a larger role in national politics.

Pawar’s move, coming just as the Congress was congratulating itself on Pranab’s smooth victory, did not surprise his confidants. They knew it was imminent. Nevertheless, the government had to go through the ignominy of a drought situation in the country — including in key states such as Karnataka and Pawar’s native Maharashtra — being unattended to by its agriculture minister, who was refusing to attend office. Pawar and Minister for Heavy Industries Praful Patel had written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, saying they were unhappy at what they called ‘the Congress’ failure to coordinate with, and consult, allied parties.’

On Saturday, 21 July, with the war in full swing, Pawar spoke to this reporter during his visit to Maharashtra. “Why do you want to talk to me?” he asked, dripping sarcasm, “you should talk to people who have some dignity. We are a small party… we have no dignity…” Prodded, he only added: “You should ask the questions that you ask me to Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. I have conveyed my displeasure on the manner of handling the government. I would not want to bring out the minutes of the meeting between the Congress leaders and me just yet. But yes, the larger issues are already being discussed. If you have a coalition government, allies are a part of it.”

Just days earlier, Pawar had played the UPA troubleshooter to the hilt. He had accompanied Pranab to Bal Thackeray’s residence in Mumbai seeking the Shiv Sena’s support for Pranab’s candidacy. There was no immediate trigger for the revolt, except reports that Pawar was upset AK Antony, and not him, was to be considered the informal No. 2 in the Cabinet now that Pranab was gone.

Patel was quick to deny all this. “Who asked for the No. 2 position?” he said, countering a TEHELKA question, “Did you hear us asking for it? These are rumours spread by some Congress leaders. But this by itself has not been the trigger — there have been other issues in the past and the tension has been simmering. We have time and again asked for better coordination between the government and the allies. What you see today, this stand-off, is a culmination of these persistent demands by not just the NCP but also other allies.”

The immediate source of Pawar’s displeasure, it seems, was the elevation of AK Antony as the informal No. 2 in Cabinet after Pranab’s exit

It was obvious Pawar was seeking to rally together smaller parties in the UPA. The coordination committee idea had also been voiced in the past by the Trinamool Congress (TMC). That aside, Pawar ensured the media found out Mamata Banerjee and the DMK’s M Karunanidhi and TR Baalu had contacted him to express solidarity. A Congress leader brushed aside the suggestion with mocking sarcasm that the allies might have called him to check on his deteriorating health.

WHY WAS Pawar upset? The NCP has been a Congress ally in Maharashtra since 1999. The two parties are now running their third successive coalition government in the state. They have also been together in the UPA in New Delhi since 2004. Despite this longevity, Pawar feels, the Congress acts unilaterally and takes its allies, particularly the NCP, for granted.

The big league Sharad Pawar was in the reckoning to be No. 2 minister in the Cabinet, after Pranab’s exit.
The big league Sharad Pawar was in the reckoning to be No. 2 minister in the Cabinet, after Pranab’s exit.
Photo: AFP

“You have made him agriculture minister,” says a senior NCP functionary, referring to the Congress, “but you want him to project that all decisions in the interest of farmers, taken by the agriculture ministry, are Madam Sonia’s brainchild. You do not let Pawar saheb take any decision. If he wants sugar mills to produce ethanol from sugarcane, you don’t like that. He wants to liberalise agricultural exports, you don’t want that. You don’t want to consult him before banning cotton exports. So why then do you need Sharad Pawar as agriculture minister?”

The allegations have a grain of truth. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Commerce suddenly banned export of cotton after extensive lobbying by textile manufacturers. The agriculture ministry was not consulted or even told. In the days that followed, Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, accused the UPA government of hurting the interests of cotton farmers, who were being denied access to buyers abroad. The Congress unit in Gujarat, which sees elections in December 2012, panicked. They approached the central Congress leadership and the export ban was revoked in a matter of days.

For Pawar, the episode was telling. As he told a close aide of Sonia’s, the Congress president seemed more concerned about what the BJP thought than what her party’s allies felt.

In Maharashtra too, Pawar has long felt that he is being conspired against. Action against the Lavasa Township project was interpreted as an arrow aimed at the NCP. Lavasa was promoted by Hindustan Construction Company, the chairman of which, Ajit Gulabchand, is a close friend of Pawar. The NCP chief is a big supporter of the Lavasa Development Project.

The NCP rues that earlier this year, the Ministry of Commerce banned the export of cotton and did not even intimate the Agriculture Ministry

That aside, the NCP leadership has big political and economic stakes in the Maharashtra cooperatives sector. The government has attempted to jeopardise these. “Do you think we don’t know why the Reserve Bank dissolved the boards of the Maharashtra state cooperatives?” asks an NCP functionary, “Most of our members are on the boards and giving loans to farmers through these boards is one of the reasons for the NCP’s popularity in Maharashtra. So the first step you want to take is cut our wings.”

BY HIS own reckoning, Pawar has been a good ally. Not only did he campaign for the Congress in the presidential election — even if it cost the NCP the membership of PA Sangma, who took on Pranab — he also recused himself from the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGOM) on the 2G spectrum issue. He did not want his proximity to some of those accused in the 2G scandal to be used against the government, he said.

The Congress obviously didn’t see his acts as a mark of his benevolence. Though the presidential election process was still underway, Congress managers anticipated Pawar’s move and began telling sections of the media that the NCP supremo was upset at not being conferred the No. 2 position in the post-Pranab Cabinet. There had been murmurs of Pawar being unhappy at the seating arrangements in a Cabinet meeting, with Antony taking Pranab’s chair, nearest to the prime minister.

Sources say the Congress- NCP combine has worked out negotiations that gives more teeth to the NCP in decision-making in the coalition

Patel went on record to say stories about Pawar being angry at being denied the so-called No. 2 position were a figment of the Congress’ imagination, and deliberate plants in the media. They were an attempt, the NCP suggested, at belittling Pawar and making his serious political arguments seem trivial.

The Congress sensed the NCP was attempting to corner Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan in Maharashtra. As such, it began leaking stories about corruption charges against NCP ministers. Almost on cue, news channels started to report the NCP had entered into sweetheart deals in the building of Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi, and that Chhagan Bhujbal, the state’s PWD minister, had allotted contracts to members of his family.

Talking to TEHELKA, Bhujbal admitted one of the contracts had been awarded to an entity associated with his daughter but insisted he had nothing to do with it. “Even Prithviraj Chavan conceded I had no hand in the allotment and that it was a decision of the Cabinet,” Bhujbal protested, “so why get my name involved?” He said “cheap elements in the Congress” were to blame.

Earlier in July, the BJP had targeted another NCP minister, Sunil Tatkare, for an alleged irrigation scandal. NCP leaders seemed less worried about the scandal and more about the source of the accusations. They suggested the BJP had acted with the tacit approval of the Congress. As an NCP man in Delhi said: “The moment they pick a new chief minister for Maharashtra, they whisper into his ears that the NCP needs to be thrown out. Why else do you think Prithviraj Chavan, who does not wish to clear a single file to keep his reputation intact, wants to bring out a white paper on irrigation? Because Ajit Pawar is minister for irrigation …” Builder lobbies in Mumbai and Pune, considered close to Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit, have also been targeted by Chavan.

The big leagure Pawar with daughter and fellow MP Supriya Sule
The big leagure Pawar with daughter and fellow MP Supriya Sule
Photo: Fotocorp

BUT WERE these relatively minor controversies reason enough for Pawar’s uprising? If they were, it could have been discussed behind closed doors like similar other issues. As another senior Congress leader remarks, “Sharad Pawar and his comrades have been attending all Cabinet meets; what coordination does he talk about? Is lack of coordination not an issue with any coalition?” In Pawar’s case, the argument seems well placed. The talk of coordination was just a cover-up for the real issues that Pawar had set to barter for himself.

While Patel and DP Tripathi, as Pawar’s lieutenants in New Delhi, kept briefing the media on these niggling issues, it became increasingly apparent that the NCP’s negotiations with the Congress were on other subjects. Was Chavan’s removal among them? Was Supria’s elevation a part of it? Or was this an attempt to up the ante against the Congress at a time when it was time for Pawar to demand his pound of flesh? Sources monitoring the development said that while there has been a formula that the Congress-NCP combine has worked towards, which means giving Prithviraj another three months reprieve, the focus of the debate was towards larger issues of functioning in the coalition which gives more teeth to the NCP in decision-making processes.

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The Congress NCP Showdown

IN 2009, when he was CM, Vilasrao Deshmukh said if need be, the Congress could go it alone in Maharashtra. This was a result of a bickering with Sharad Pawar. Pawar dared the Congress to do so

THE NCP held the Congress responsible for making the RBI dissolve the board of the Maharashtra State Cooperatives bank in May 2011. Most members on the board were from the NCP

IN 2012, documents were released to the press about the involvement of two NCP ministers, Chhagan Bhujbal and Sunil Tatkare, in corruption cases. The NCP believes the documents were released to belittle the party

TWO MONTHS ago, Prithviraj Chavan said that he intended to bring out a white paper on irrigation, following allegations of corruption in the department. This move angered the NCP, as it felt the Congress wanted to attack Ajit Pawar. Pawar was irrigation minister for two terms before taking over as deputy chief minister

IN APRIL 2012, Sharad Pawar was miffed that the food ministry took a long time to export sugar and held Food Minister KV Thomas responsible. The sugar cooperatives belt is the stronghold of the NCP supremo

EARLIER IN March, the UPA imposed a ban on cotton exports despite Sharad Pawar having advised the government against it. The ban was lifted after Gujarat Congress leaders approached Ahmed Patel to revoke it as it could be used as an election issue.

NCP LEADERS were displeased that AK Antony took the seat next to Manmohan Singh in the Cabinet meeting after Pranab’s exit. Pawar supporters believed that it was done deliberately

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When Chavan was summoned by Sonia Gandhi to 10 Janpath, Pawar was at his residence with Patel and Tripathi, watching news channels and waiting to hear from the Congress. Patel was in constant touch with the other big Patel in UPA politics — Ahmed Patel, the Congress chief’s political secretary. They negotiated the peace formula, one that ensured Pawar the “izzat” he had earlier insisted on.

Power Circle Pawar with Sonia Gandhi
Power Circle Pawar with Sonia Gandhi
Photo: AFP

Praful Patel was nonchalant till the very end: “Let me tell you point-blank, we don’t want Prithviraj removed as chief minister, we are not concerned. We don’t want any more ministries, we already have three. We don’t care if Prithviraj wants to bring out a white paper on irrigation. We don’t want the No. 2 slot in the Cabinet.”

In a sense, Patel was right. Pawar was positioning himself not for the skirmishes of 2012 but for the expected battles of 2014. The next general election could result in a hung parliament and a weak Congress and BJP — and offer Pawar his last shot at becoming the prime minister. It’s a prize he has coveted since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991.

Pawar thought he had the job after the election that year. Congress MPs were kept entertained in the capital’s Maurya Hotel, with Pawar’s then friend Suresh Kalmadi taking care of them. Apparently in high spirits, Kalmadi even called up senior journalists saying the Congress had decided on its future prime minister. An editor of Maharashtrian origin introduced Pawar to a gathering at the Foreign Correspondents Club as “the prime minister elect”.

Then Pawar’s game fell flat. The Congress rallied behind PV Narasimha Rao. Pawar was left with the Defence Ministry. In 1993, following the religious riots and subsequent bombings in Mumbai, Rao sent him back to Maharashtra as chief minister. The would-be prime minister was once more enmeshed in state politics.

In 1997, Pawar had another chance. Rao was gone by then, and Sonia hadn’t come into formal politics. Sitaram Kesri was an interim president of the Congress and Pawar felt he could capture the organisation. However, when Sonia took charge, Pawar had to leave. He did so on the grounds that a foreign-born person could not possibly become prime minister, leaving the Congress with Tariq Anwar and Sangma to form the NCP.

That’s why few are delinking Pawar’s current appeal for “izzat” from his hope of a horribly hung Lok Sabha in 2014. He realises Mulayam Singh Yadav (Uttar Pradesh) and Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal) see themselves as possible big players in New Delhi and are counting on a big chunk of seats from their states, for which they are pushing the Congress to the margins. Pawar is endeavouring to do just that in Maharashtra.

As Kumar Ketkar, a Mumbai-based senior journalist, points out: “If a cricketer is on the pitch and to win a match he has to score 120 runs in six overs, his first attempt will be to stick on the pitch and not be bowled out. The second attempt will be to score as many sixes and fours so that he remains a tough fighter. Pawar is playing the same game on the political pitch.” The man who says he won’t contest the Lok Sabha election in 2014 is already planning for the government-formation process after the votes are counted.

An NCP MP admits as much. “If all other allies are busy making plans for 2014, why should we be left behind?” he asks.

THE PRIME ministership is not the only issue bothering Pawar. He has domestic squabbles to sort out as well. There is a tussle between daughter Supriya Sule and nephew Ajit Pawar for the inheritance. As Pawar (senior) sees it, Supriya is the one chosen for a national role. Having given his daughter the family seat of Baramati in 2009, he is now hoping she will become a minister in the coming reshuffle. Agatha Sangma, Purno Sangma’s daughter, is about to exit as a minister of state from the NCP quota. Of course Pawar is bargaining for a “heavyweight” portfolio for his party and his daughter, having had the Civil Aviation Ministry taken away.

Sharad Pawar seems to be positioning himself not for the skirmishes of 2012, but for the general election battle of 2014 — his last shot at the prime ministry

Pawar has also asked Supriya to spend more time in the national capital and build a rapport with younger leaders like YS Jaganmohan Reddy, Mamata Banerjee and Akhilesh Yadav. He feels Indian politics is readying for generational change and wants his daughter and his party to be ready for this opportunity.

In Maharashtra, which also goes to poll in 2014, Pawar is playing a more cautious game — or being forced to. The Congress has made it clear, it will not remove Chavan from the chief minister’s post. The person most keen on seeing the back of Chavan is Ajit Pawar, who wants to become chief minister himself. In fact, he has been instigating Congress MPs to rebel against their chief minister and was recently said to be behind the letter written by 43 Congress MLAs to the state party unit president. The letter complained about Chavan’s governance.

As his uncle has concentrated on New Delhi, Ajit has increasingly become the party boss in Maharashtra and taken on the task of patronising the business network that Sharad Pawar had created. Other than Rahul Bajaj, himself a veteran, the senior Pawar has no businessmen friends whom he can count on blindly, and expect support from in case of a confrontation with Ajit. Especially in the property development community, Ajit’s links are very strong. In 2010, Ajit got his uncle to tell Bhujbal to quit as deputy chief minister and hand the job to Ajit.

Power circle ( left) Sharad Pawar’s nephew and Dy Chief Minister of Maharashtra Ajit Pawar. Maharashtra CM Prithviraj Chavan with Praful Patel

Photo: Deepak Salvi, Shailendra Pandey

As the duel with the Congress intensified in the past week, it became clear to Sharad Pawar that if he walked out of the government in New Delhi, he would have to do so in Maharashtra as well. At this point, Ajit may have formed a group of his own, and split the NCP. He could prospectively have attempted to put together an alternative government. This worried his uncle and Patel, and they decided to settle for a low-risk compromise. No wonder Patel began to phone journalists and insist: “We don’t believe in giving ultimatums.”

Now NCP leaders are claiming that irrespective of who made the first move to peace — the Congress or the NCP — it is Pawar’s party that has gained. Supriya will get a ministry sooner or later and her father will head the EGOM on drought issues and be given a free hand. The prime minister has acknowledged his seniority in politics and told him as much.

Pawar has asked daughter Supriya Sule to spend more time in the national capital and build rapport with younger leaders like Jagan and Akhilesh

In Maharashtra, if Chavan is removed (which appears unlikely), the NCP will claim credit. If he is not removed, the NCP will foment Congress dissidence and continue to try and win over rebellious factions from the partner party. “If they can make their moves why can’t we,” smirks an NCP functionary. “They started it. Why does Prithviraj Chavan meet Uddhav Thackeray, his secretary and his son for hours? If they can play games, why can’t we?”

EVEN SO, Maharashtra is the side-show. The main drama is in New Delhi and the moment of reckoning will be May 2014, when the next government is sworn in. In the past few days, Congress politicians have had digs at Pawar — Mani Shankar Aiyar even likened him to his (Aiyar’s) ever-demanding grandson. On the other hand, the incessant talk of “izzat” from the NCP camp seemed suspicious to most hardened political observers. Yet it all served to win Pawar enough fuel for the long ride to 2014.

What will Pawar achieve out of this? Frankly, nobody knows. There can be only three possible options after the 2014 election — a Congress-led government, a BJP-led government and a Third Front government. Typical of Pawar, he can stay relevant in all three situations. That’s what makes him so difficult to predict. And so difficult to ignore.

Rana Ayyub is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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