Sharad Pawar is among the few politicians in India who need no introduction. He has been there, done that, and seen it all: in Mumbai and Delhi, within and outside the Congress, with or without the Gandhis, in his own small party or regional coalitions. Pawar, the politician, was done writing his autobiography four years ago, “On My Terms: From the Grassroots to the Corridors of Power”, recording his journey of 50 years but keeping the juiciest stories, many secrets and his insider knowledge of politics, out of it.
At 80, a milestone birthday which he marked on 12 December, when most politicians are content in a sinecure gubernatorial or titular posting, tending to their gardens and delighting in grandchildren, Pawar is all raring to go after his aspirations with an energy that often stuns those around him. Pawar dotes on his grandchildren—daughter Supriya Sule’s son and daughter—and he is fond of many a young member of his large family. But his delight lies elsewhere—in scoring political goals like he did in Maharashtra last year by stitching an improbable alliance, in generating suspense about his moves, in checkmating rivals among friendly parties and outside them, in plotting his next game.
It is often said in Maharashtra that Pawar understood the intricacies of politics early in his life; he was the president of the youth wing of the Congress at 24 and had won an election to Maharashtra assembly at 27. It can be said that, at 80, he is acutely aware of the importance of being Sharad Pawar, especially in a modified BJP-dominated India.
Why is he important, why is he still a player? It is not as if the Nationalist Congress Party, which he floated as a variant of the Congress 21 years ago, has a pan-India presence. In fact, it does not even span across all of Maharashtra and calls the shots largely in western Maharashtra. It is not as if he can determine political fortunes by forming alliances in electorally key states or lend heft to a national party in Maharashtra or another state. It is also not as if he has built a party based purely on merit; the NCP is dynastic as other parties are.
It’s not as if Pawar has a string of administrative and policy achievements to his credit; he saw moderate success rolling out the first Maharashtra-level women’s policy in India in the 1990s and steering India's disaster management in its early years resulting in the National Disaster Response Force, but his stint as India’s agriculture minister in the UPA governments witnessed agrarian distress, farmers’ suicides, and scandals. He moved across politics to helm cricket administration among other things. He has had his share of allegations of corruption and misuse of power though the mud has not stuck.
What explains his importance is his ability to be all things to all people across the political spectrum and aim for the large prize, audaciously so if the situation calls for it. The Maharashtra saga last year is a good example. Political analysts do not believe that the “coup” that his nephew Ajit Pawar engineered with a handful of MLAs in November last year to partner BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis for a shocking unconstitutional government was not scripted by Pawar or did not have his blessings. By the time the “errant” nephew returned home and his "transgression" was forgiven, two events had happened: President’s Rule in the state had been revoked paving the way for the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government that Pawar had sewn and some of the inquiries against Ajit Pawar in the multi-crore irrigation scandal initiated when Fadnavis was chief minister had been closed.
Pawar’s importance in Maharashtra politics now is more than it was two decades ago when he partnered Sonia Gandhi's Congress only four months after he had dramatically walked out of the party citing her foreign origins. He is the architect of the ruling alliance in the state as well as the steady and experienced hand that holds the remote control over chief minister Uddhav Thackeray (Shiv Sena), son of a man whose politics he did not particularly care for. Maharashtra’s Congress leaders, with a few exceptions, now look to Pawar for their political cues and advice. As it happens, Pawar stands between the BJP and power in Maharashtra, a loss that still hurts the party.
On the national platform, Pawar is among the few leaders who shares a good rapport with other regional leaders. He could combine it with his veteran Bhishmapitamah-like status to build a cohesive opposition against the BJP, if he puts his mind to it. There was a reason that news about Pawar heading the UPA floated around his birthday last week; he dismissed it as “false news” but the thought exercise had sprung from his supporters. Would he relish such an opportunity? Indeed.
As a Rajya Sabha MP, he has a reason to be in New Delhi and can network. Moreover, several of the BJP’s corporate funders are his friends too. Would he play for the big stakes? Certainly. He made not one but two bids for the Prime Minister's job in the 1990s, only to be thwarted by other veterans in the Congress. His ambition has not stilled; if not the king, he would love to be kingmaker.
Pawar brings to the table the old-world politics that is rooted in articulation of people’s issues, that is based on electoral matrices in constituencies, that draws upon the idea of secular and progressive India. In the middle of the pandemic, despite his age and health problems, Pawar toured areas of Maharashtra hit by unseasonal rain and crop losses. He is not overtly religious in personal life or communal in his politics. His political outlook is shaped by reformers like Jotiba Phule and Dr BR Ambedkar in addition to his mentor YB Chavan, not by the likes of MS Golwalkar or Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. The mandir-masjid politics repulsed him.
Pawar’s politics is not self-indulgent or cult-like, it is not constructed and driven by image managers, it does not depend on oratory or hyperbole, it does not fetishise social media reach and internet, and does not make a virtue of exhibitionism and photo-ops. It is not about personal style (he is always dressed in a simple white trousers-shirt, his only indulgence is his love for good pens), he does not need a script or teleprompter to speak, and he smirks at the idea of a hologram.
In a nutshell, Pawar would be a good candidate as an Opposition leader, the antidote that the new India badly needs. Pawar’s significance at this juncture of India’s politics when the Opposition is disunited and rudderless cannot be overstated. But the realisation of that importance is thwarted by the trust factor. Does he inspire trust across the opposition space, is the multi-million-rupee question.
Politicians know that Pawar can even partner with his rivals for power, that even as he positions himself to be the next chairperson of the UPA he can whet the appetite of a section within the BJP which believes he can be made an offer he cannot refuse. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had reverentially referred to Pawar as his “mentor” and spent a day in Pawar’s home turf Baramati five years ago. Pawar had extended unsolicited support to the BJP government in Maharashtra in October 2014 when it needed to touch the majority mark. The NCP has played electoral politics in Gujarat, to name one state, which undercut the anti-BJP vote in certain constituencies and enabled the saffron party to win them. Pawar’s views on the controversial Farm Bills did not exactly boost the Opposition’s cause. No one is quite sure if his relationship with the BJP, especially with Modi, is warm and friendly or merely transactional.
For what it's worth, Pawar has shown renewed motivation in the last 15 months. After the Lok Sabha election last year, he had prepared to wind down—till BJP’s vendetta politics manifested in an Enforcement Directorate action against him and Fadnavis taunted that “Pawar era was over” during the Assembly election campaign. The BJP's aim was to decimate not only the opposition but also its ally, Shiv Sena. His mentee had clearly not learned all the lessons Pawar had taught. A wounded Pawar campaigned with the vigour of a man half his age, including speaking at a rally in the midst of hard rain, and later ensuring that BJP-Fadnavis would be chastened.
He is in his second—or third—spring. If only he could win the trust of most Opposition leaders, he might have helped shape a cohesive and coherent Opposition, with or without Rahul Gandhi.
The author is a senior Mumbai-based journalist and columnist who writes on politics, cities, media and gender. The views are personal.