If the 18th century statesman of the Maratha Empire, Nana Phadnavis, was called the ‘Maratha Machiavelli’ by European visitors to the Peshwa court, that moniker today would undoubtedly belong to the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) supremo, Sharad Pawar.
Arguably one of Maharashtra’s tallest leaders in the last quarter of the 20th century, the 82-year-old, whose name has become a byword for regional Indian realpolitik, remains a pivotal figure of the State and country’s politics today and the only Opposition leader whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi defers to.
A lot of ink has been expended in gauging every move in Mr. Pawar’s eventful 63-year political career. A catalyst who has changed the chemistry of regional politics, his career facts are well-known: undefeated in his 56 years of electoral politics since he first became MLA from Baramati (in Pune district) in 1967; the youngest Chief Minister of Maharashtra at age 38 in 1978, he helmed the State in that capacity a total four times; holder of vital union Cabinet portfolios like Defence and Agriculture in previous Congress-led governments at the Centre.
While his admirers laud his vision and contribution in the social and economic fields — the sprawling IT park at Pune, the cooperatives and agro-industries in western Maharashtra and so on — his detractors, several in his former party, the Congress, as well as his opponents, view him as a pragmatic opportunist, or worse, a “backstabber”.
His latest blitz, which saw him suddenly announce his resignation as the party’s national president on May 2 — and then take it back after three tense days which sparked anxiety among his allies while keeping intra-party and external rivals guessing — was characteristic of a classic ‘Pawar stroke’.
The NCP, formed after breaking away from the Congress in 1999, is often viewed as a party without ideology — of sugar barons and businessmen, of a lobby of Maratha strongmen with entrenched rural interests.
In practice, while Mr. Pawar has never let ideology interfere with politics, he fondly speaks (in his memoir On My Terms) of the aura of socialist ideologies, owing to left-wing ideals of his beloved mother, Sharadabai, and the influence of the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), a force to reckon with in the State in the 1940s and 50s.
But Mr. Pawar chose the Congress as his launch-pad, and came under the tutelage of his mentor, Maharashtra’s first CM Yashwantrao Chavan, in whose footsteps he closely followed.
It was Chavan’s articulation of the ‘Bahujan Samaj’ ideology — which in turn drew from the ‘Brahmanetar’ (non-Brahmin) movement of the 1930s — which saw Maratha leaders eventually become the dominant faction within the State Congress. Simultaneously, Chavan ushered in development through the network of agro-industries.
The young Pawar’s politics were forged in the cauldron of a turmoil-racked Congress during the Emergency-era of 1977 (when the Congress lost the election to the Janata Party) and the volatile political history of the Maharashtra Congress, which was being riven by factionalism with the dominant Maratha lobby from western Maharashtra (to which Y.B. Chavan and Mr. Pawar belonged) and the factions from Marathwada and Vidarbha regions.
Cold war within Congress
The then PM, Indira Gandhi, with her aversion to Y.B. Chavan and the ‘Maratha lobby’, wanted to create her own base in Maharashtra by imposing her CM candidates like A.R. Antulay and Shankarrao Chavan, who were either non-Maratha or not hailing from western Maharashtra. This brought Mrs. Gandhi’s group in the Maharashtra Congress into conflict with Mr. Pawar, a “young turk” belonging to Y.B. Chavan’s camp. By then, Mr. Pawar had formed his splinter Congress faction — the Indian Congress (Secular).
Like rebel Shiv Sena leader Eknath Shinde last year, Mr. Pawar staged his first coup in 1978 by toppling Vasantdada Patil’s government and forming his Progressive Democratic Front (PDF) coalition. This was dismissed by Indira Gandhi when she returned to power in 1980. Even when in the Opposition in Maharashtra between 1980 and 1986, Mr. Pawar always managed to stay relevant.
The attempts of the Gandhi clan to sideline the Maratha faction from western Maharashtra (and Mr. Pawar) marked a long “cold war” with Mr. Pawar, which temporarily ended with his return to the Congress and becoming the CM again in 1988. Eleven years later, Mr. Pawar again split the Congress, ostensibly on the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s “foreign nativity”, to form the NCP.
Mr. Pawar patched up with Ms. Gandhi after the 1999 Maharashtra Assembly election where both Congresses, contesting separately, failed to garner simple majority. The two joined hands in a bid to keep “communal forces” (the then Shiv Sena- BJP alliance) at bay. The NCP strongman’s “realism” comes through at several points in his career: In 1999, the Congress’s Vilasrao Deshmukh, who hailed from Latur in Marathwada, became Maharashtra CM. During Mr. Pawar’s fourth term as CM (1993-95), Deshmukh had fiercely clashed with Mr. Pawar. Yet, Mr. Pawar backed Deshmukh’s nomination as CM.
Mr. Pawar’s fourth term as CM (1993 and 1995) was marked by a litany of corruption allegations against him, alleged links with Mumbai’s real estate mafia and more seriously, accusations that he allegedly sought to protect the interests of known gangsters Suresh Kalani and Hitendra Thakur, said to be associated with underworld don Dawood Ibrahim. Mr. Pawar also had to contend with the forces of rising communalism in this period, personified by his ideological rival Bal Thackeray and his Shiv Sena.
Architect of unlikely coalition
Mr. Pawar has managed to hold his own against the seemingly invincible Mr. Modi as well. The PM had piled invective on the Pawar clan while campaigning in Baramati during the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly election, dubbing the NCP as the ‘Naturally Corrupt Party’.
Barely three months later, Mr. Modi shared the dais with Mr. Pawar in Baramati, hailing his ‘model of development’ and showering praises on the NCP chief.
As the Sena-BJP alliance crumbled in 2019, Mr. Pawar had a political Indian summer as the ‘architect’ of the unlikely coalition of the ideologically opposed NCP, Congress and the Sena to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA).
The coalition has held even after the toppling of the MVA government last year following Eknath Shinde’s revolt, which split Mr. Thackeray’s Sena. While Mr. Pawar continues to call the shots, recent MVA rallies show a rise in Mr. Thackeray’s popularity.
It is in this context that observers say Mr. Pawar’s resignation drama typically has multiple meanings: Was it to check the well-known ambitions of his nephew Ajit Pawar and warn the BJP not to tangle with the NCP in the manner in which it broke the Shiv Sena last year? Was it to draw attention back from Mr. Thackeray, and thus increase the NCP’s bargaining position ahead of the 2024 elections?
Either way, Mr. Pawar’s demonstration was a coded masterclass to Mr. Thackeray on how to stay in control of one’s party and prevent a split within his own ranks. Mr. Pawar’s message to both his allies and rivals is simple and straightforward: I am the party.