Feelings are not facts. Praful Patel has been a loyal and trusted lieutenant of Sharad Pawar. It is therefore perfectly understandable for him to remember Pawar as one of the best prime ministers India did not have. There would be many in politics, bureaucracy and in other walks of life who would vouch for Patel’s sentiments inside and outside Maharashtra.
However, facts are a tad different. In 1991, after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, there were seven contenders to lead the Congress and Pawar was certainly among them. The others were [not in any particular order] PV Narasimha Rao, Arjun Singh, Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma [who was vice president of the country then], ND Tiwari, Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot.
It is true that Pawar came closest to realising his dream of becoming prime minister of India in 1991. The Congress Working Committee’s unanimous choice [Pawar was party to it] was Sonia Gandhi but when the grief-stricken widow declined, lobbying and jockeying began in a rather no-holds barred manner.
The Pawar camp had become pro-active, holding dinners. These five-star dinners were organised by Pawar’s pointsman Suresh Kalmadi. 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 Arjun Singh, while Narasimha Rao, who had consciously avoided pitching himself as a contender, made the cut because aspirants like Pawar, Arjun, Tiwari and Scindia were busy cutting each other’s prospects.
This phase of Congress internal politics deserves elaboration and some recollection. As Prime Minister, leader of the Opposition and Leader of the Congress, Rajiv Gandhi had himself spent countless hours and days cutting regional satraps to size, but many still nursed the ambition of becoming prime minister.
Rajiv Gandhi’s sudden death brought their ambitions into play. Among them was Pawar from Maharashtra, who had a knack of striking deals with his foes. Then there was Narain Dutt Tiwari, a seasoned Brahmin leader from Uttar Pradesh who was considered a politician among politicians. Madhya Pradesh leader Arjun Singh was known for his political skills and gave Rajiv Gandhi a hard time by constantly disobeying him as chief minister. When Rajiv Gandhi asked him to step down following his indictment in a court case, Singh rebelled and forced Gandhi to strike a deal with him.
There were also the Karnataka chief minister Veerendra Patil, and his Andhra counterpart, M Channa Reddy, and others who were kept at arm’s length. To counter these leaders, Rajiv Gandhi had promoted a set of courtiers to powerful positions who lacked a mass base of their own. They included Sardar Buta Singh, ML Fotedar, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Jitendra Prasada. Perhaps, Praful Patel’s reference to “some drawing room politicians” conspiring to block Pawar’s candidature, is aimed at them.
But blaming Fotedar, Prasada, Buta Singh, Azad etc. would amount to a skewed way of looking at the events. Pawar himself had fallen for Rao’s scheming ways and reportedly believed him when the man with a pout told him that the ‘future’ belonged to him. This was the same story Rao was selling to Arjun.
Pawar happily became defence minister in Rao cabinet until he was stunted out as chief minister of Maharashtra in March 1993, rather abruptly. By 1995, the Congress under Pawar lost Maharashtra and the Maratha strongman never recovered the glory and promise he had enjoyed. From 1995, Pawar was reduced as a king-maker and could not return as chief minister of Maharashtra even as his protégé ranging from Vilasrao Deshmukh, Sushil Kumar Shinde and Prithviraj Chavan bagged the coveted post.
By 1996, Pawar was nowhere in the reckoning. Anyone familiar with the going-ons of that era would confirm that Delhi had turned into a bazaar after the fall of the 13-day Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav nursed a strong and not so veiled ambition to be the prime minister. The man who was tasked to lead a rainbow coalition was Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu.
After the ‘historical blunder’ [when the CPM politburo naively prevented Basu from taking up the job], regional allies closed ranks. Forget about entertaining any thought of letting Rao or Pawar lead the coalition, the United Front constituents, shrewdly advised by Chandrababu Naidu and GK Moopnar, kept the Congress out from UF ministry and even dodged inducting UF partners and deserving faces like Madhavrao Scindia and ND Tiwari as ministers. Scindia was head of two MPs group of Madhya Pradesh Vikas Congress and Tiwari was leading a breakaway Congress [T].
Patel may be right about Mulayam-Lalu-Deve Gowda calling on Pawar but knowing these crafty politicians, the ploy may have been to scuttle someone else’s chances or strike a newer deal.
It is part of the Congress folklore that when Arjun had proposed Sonia’s name at May 22, 1991 CWC meet, Pawar had looked at him with a sense of bafflement. The two were seated side by side, leaning heavily on masnads. Arjun is said to have scribbled on a notepad, ‘she would not.’ The veracity of these nuggets would never be confirmed but it tells us why politics is considered as the art of the possible.
By the time Deve Godwa was dumped, Congress president Sitaram Kesri was an ‘old man in a hurry.’ He seemed possessed by a strong desire [perhaps the only wish] to become prime minister of Hindustan. It is said that when the then president KR Narayanan refused to invite him for a swearing-in, Kesri had returned to his Purana Qila residence, he was in no mood for his favourite Pomeranian Ruchi’s joyous welcome. Eyewitnesses, however, recalled that the moment he kicked her, Kesri was overcome with remorse.
Patel may be right in quoting Deve Gowda as saying, “125 Congress MPs had gathered at Pawar’s residence and extended their support to him but Pawar chose not to take any step to prevent a split in the Congress.” Pawar perhaps had decided not to repeat the mistake of 1991.