Seventy-two hours after Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and asked him to relieve him of some of his “burden” — that is the consumer affairs, food and public distribution part of his portfolio — the reasons for his request have become the subject of speculation in the Congress.
This is particularly so because the Congress' relationship with Mr. Pawar and his Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has always been ambivalent, given the circumstances under which he broke with it 11 years ago to float his own outfit. On Wednesday, a senior Congress leader commented: “Mr. Pawar is a highly experienced politician. Sabhi ghat ke paani pi kar aage barhe hain. [He has done everything that he can do in politics and gone ahead].”
Indeed, Mr. Pawar's battle with the Congress has always operated at two levels. For one, there is the turf war with Congress leaders from Maharashtra, even though he enjoys an extremely good equation with Dr. Singh, dating back to the time they were Ministers in P.V. Narasimha Rao's Cabinet. For another and equally significant, since 2004, when he joined the United Progressive Alliance government, he and the Congress have often been locked in policy clashes, the battleground being the Ministries of Agriculture, Food and Consumer Affairs.
For instance, in June 2006, when the Congress Working Committee discussed the grim price situation, a very senior Congress Minister — commenting on the wheat fiasco — said that had the Agriculture Minister been a Congressman, he and his secretary would have been sacked. And then, earlier this year, in March, senior Congress leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi openly accused Mr. Pawar of misrepresenting facts on sugar availability in the country. Though Mr. Chaturvedi was later pulled up by the party leadership for speaking out of turn, the taunt hung in the air.
Now, sources say, with the Congress officially speaking about the party's disquiet at food inflation, even as it has vigorously defended the hike in fuel prices, Mr. Pawar is feeling the heat again. This is especially so, because it has been made clear that the Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) on Food Security will have to wait until the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council (NAC) gives its recommendations on the subject. Already, NAC members have criticised the Food Security Bill that the EGoM was discussing as not going far enough.
The sources said Mr. Pawar indicated that the NAC should perhaps re-examine its proposals: like many others in the government and the Planning Commission, he is of the view that procurement being what it is, it will be virtually impossible to fulfil the NAC's ambitious plans of universalising the food security entitlements of 35 kg of foodgrains a month per family. It is against this backdrop, the sources say, that Mr. Pawar's statement on reduction of his burden should be read. Of course, he has also pointed out that while he had three Ministers of State assisting him in the UPA's first tenure, he now has only one. NCP sources, meanwhile, said Mr. Pawar would genuinely not mind shedding some of his ministerial responsibilities, so that the Congress stops attacking him and also because he wants to devote more time to his party. For, while the Maharashtra Congress unit is waiting for the day the two parties can merge again, Mr. Pawar has no intention of dissolving the party he has built. Not just that, after 44 years in politics — as he himself has pointed out — and not being in the best of health, he wants to ensure that the party that he bequeaths to his daughter and MP, Supriya Sule, is in good shape.