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After Half a Century of Hits and Misses, Sharad Pawar Sees One Last Shot at Comeback in ED Case

Sharad Pawar hasn’t lost an electoral battle since 1976, a distinction that eluded even former prime ministers like Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. However, his political stature has been hugely diminished today.

Rasheed Kidwai | @rasheedkidwai

Updated:September 27, 2019, 1:12 PM IST
After Half a Century of Hits and Misses, Sharad Pawar Sees One Last Shot at Comeback in ED Case
File photo of NCP chief Sharad Pawar. (Reuters)

For Sharad Pawar, who aspired to be the Prime Minister and President of the country, a case of money-laundering and corruption comes as a rude shock in the run-up to Maharashtra elections.

The NCP chief was always seen to be prime minister material — maverick, hands-on, fox-like, crafty. Pawar hasn’t lost an electoral battle since 1976, a distinction that eluded even former prime ministers like Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

However, his political stature has been hugely diminished today.

In 2017, the Narendra Modi government conferred the Padma Vibhushan on Pawar for his contribution to public life. The previous year, Modi had paid the Maratha strongman handsome compliments, saying, “Pawar has completed 50 years of being an MLA/MP, which is a legacy in itself in Indian politics. I have no hesitation in accepting that Pawar held my hand and taught me to walk in my early days in Gujarat.”

The alleged Rs 25,000-crore Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank (MSCB) scam dates back to 2012 when activist Surinder Arora had accused Pawar of “criminal conspiracy and abetment”. Was the Modi government then not aware of it when it decided to confer the country’s second-highest civilian honour on Pawar?

Pawar’s political career is a mixed bag of hits and misses. He became Maharashtra chief minister for the first time aged just 38 in 1978 when he treacherously toppled the Congress government of Vasantdada Patil, split the party, and formed a government in coalition with the Janata Party under the banner of the Progressive Democratic Front.

The closest he came to realising his dream of becoming prime minister of India was in 1991, after the Congress came to power in the post-Rajiv Gandhi era. A grief-stricken Sonia had declined and was unwilling to make any direct intervention. The Pawar camp became pro-active, holding dinners with the help of Suresh Kalmadi and others. In the hour of grief, the indiscretion of hosting dinners boomeranged as the Maratha strongman was left with a support of barely 54 MPs. In the protracted tug of war, Pawar locked horns with likes of Arjun Singh, with bulk of party leaders settling for PV Narasimha Rao.

Pawar quickly settled down for the job of defence minister under Rao, hoping that political compulsions would soon either crown him as the Congress president or premiership of the country or both. Instead, he found Rao shunting him back to Maharashtra soon after the 1993 Mumbai riots and subsequent bomb blasts as chief minister of the state. The Congress lost the 1995 Maharashtra assembly polls, paving way for a Shiv-BJP alliance government.

The perception of trust deficit has been an important factor in Pawar’s political journey. In 1997-98, the emergence of Sonia Gandhi as the supreme leader of the Congress rattled Pawar. In May 1999, Pawar hosted a soiree on the rear lawns of his Gurudwara Rakabganj Road bungalow, which most thought, quite mistakenly, was in celebration of Sonia handing him charge of negotiations with AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa and other potential allies.

Pawar in crisp, white shirt chose to serve burgundy Baramati wine with a tale. “Actually, I told my leader (Sonia) that I am a visionary because I signed up an Italian collaborator for producing this wine 20 years ago.” He revealed that for many years, he had been growing a variety of grape called Sharad Seedless named after him and had been championing the cause of wine. Pawar seemed all reconciled to accept Sonia as his leader at that point of time in that moment.

But a few days later, on May 17, PA Sangma, Tariq Anwar and Pawar revolted against Sonia on the grounds of her foreign origins. It happened at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meet, called to finalise candidates for the Goa Assembly elections. Everyone present was growing restless, dying to catch up with India’s cricket World Cup opener in England. Pawar smiled and Sangma stood up. When the mighty Maratha signalled, Sangma built a case for how the BJP campaign against Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin was seeping deep down to even remote villages. Then came the unkindest cut. “We know very little about you, about your parents,” Sangma told her.

Pawar had masterminded the revolt after a bureaucrat from Maharashtra told him that she had got a survey done which revealed that if he revolts against Sonia on grounds of her foreign origins, he would be hailed as the ‘second Lokmanya Tilak’. It is a different story that when Maharashtra Assembly elections were held, Pawar’s newly formed Nationalist Party of India finished behind the Congress. The rebel was forced to become a minor partner in a coalition government in a state that was once his fiefdom.

In 2005, Pawar took over the country’s richest and most powerful sports body, the BCCI. It was a personal milestone that also broke Jagmohan Dalmiya’s hegemony. But for many, it was a step backward for a man who wanted to be the Prime Minister.

The buzz in political circles was that Pawar’s election as BCCI president was a signal of him finally giving up his cherished ambition to rule the country. He was instead looking for smaller glories. As BCCI chief, the Maharashtra strongman would be able to travel abroad frequently, attend ICC meetings, sanction stadiums, strike deals and patronise his rich and famous friends, but for an average party worker, all this means nothing.

A close associate of Pawar had, however, claimed that he had always been a sports lover. Pawar was associated with the National Wrestling Federation. “Kabaddi was included in the Asian Games because of his efforts,” recalled a member of the Mumbai Cricket Association. He was also the head of the Maharashtra Olympic Association, another supporter pointed out. With cricket, it was said, Pawar had family ties. His father-in-law, Sadashiv Ganpatrao Shinde, was a leg-spinner who made his debut at Lord’s.

Having played his innings in politics and cricket, will Pawar get a chance to see the NCP-Congress combine return to power on October 24? Even his diehard supporters are sceptical.

This couplet by Mirza Ghalib perhaps comes closes to summing up Pawar’s personality. “Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ki har khwahish pe dam nikle, bohot nikle mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle (Thousands of desires, each worth dying for… many of them I have realised, yet I yearn for more)”.

(The author is a visiting Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation. Views are personal)

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