Grand-Uncle, Cancer Survivor and Modi’s Mentor: 79-Year-Young Sharad Pawar Isn’t Done Yet
Sharad Pawar may not be contesting the general elections, but the 79-year-old is still a force to reckon with in Maharashtra and national politics.
Mumbai: I reach Silver Oak in South Mumbai at 4pm, half an hour before my scheduled appointment with Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar. The prospect of spending the rest of the day with him, to travel with him to his election rally in the neighbouring district makes me nervous and excited at the same time.
As I write my name on a small chit, which will be handed over to ‘Saheb’, I see a group of people waiting for their turn.
“Do ordinary people get such easy access to any other leader here? Can anyone go to Matoshree to meet Uddhav Thackeray, without prior appointment,” says one of the staffers.
Stories about Pawar’s connect with ordinary people, about his extraordinary memory in remembering those he had met years ago is the stuff of legends in Maharashtra politics. So is his energy level. At 79, he has held 79 rallies, crisscrossing the entire state of Maharashtra, often in temperatures soaring to 40 degree Celsius.
“Saheb arrived early morning from Nagpur today, after a whirlwind tour of Vidarbha. He had wound up his schedule quite late last night, and had travelled by road through the Naxal-affected areas,” one of his staff members told me that mid-April day.
Soon after the chit with my name reaches his office, the intercom of Sharad Pawar’s assistant rings. An office boy immediately ushers me into his room.
“So, what is the mood?” he asks me while going through a file.
“Sir, I haven’t travelled as yet,” I tell him.
“Good. The heat on the field is really bad,” he says, smiling.
I ask him what his assessment is.
“People in the rural areas are really upset with the government,” he tells me. As we do some small talk, he gets another call on the intercom, informing him of a group’s arrival. He asks me for tea or coffee. Before the group of people enters his office, the office boy takes me to a neighbouring room.
“We will leave in 15 minutes,” he tells me.
By 4:25pm, he calls for his driver. In the meantime, a local NCP leader has called up his office to request ‘Saheb’ to delay his arrival at a small rally in South Mumbai to be held for Congress leader Milind Deora. For punctual Pawar, delaying the schedule is out of question. The leader gets a call back from Silver Oak saying, “Saheb is leaving.”
As the convoy zips through the traffic of South Mumbai, Sharad Pawar begins speaking. In a free-wheeling, informal conversation, he opens up on varied topics -- from farming to rural women’s household budgets, 1993 bomb blasts and Dawood connection, supply and demand cycles, political stories from the 1960s and 1970s, Kashmir tourism, GM foods, his fight with oral cancer, sugarcane and sugar politics, his grandchildren, daughter Supriya Sule’s political plans and building socio-cultural-educational institutions.
“Apart from politics, there is lot of other work I do. I am involved in many social, educational, cultural organisations. I serve on their boards. Our agricultural college in Baramati gives opportunity to the children of farmers to study farming and do their internships abroad. In horticulture, we have collaboration with an institution from The Netherlands. Every year, our students travel there. It gives them exposure,” he says.
What follows is a discussion on international sugar politics, empowerment of rural women to produce goods for five-star hotels and large MNCs.
The topic veers towards his entry into politics and his experiences in the early years. “I was a young man then. I had just entered youth politics. A senior leader had taken some of us to Delhi to meet Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. At the time, there was a non-Congress government in Kerala. That CM had taken a decision the Congress did not appreciate.”
“Mr Nehru issued a note which was critical of the decision. One of his leaders asked him why he did not speak against the CM who had taken the decision. His answer has remained with me till date. Pandit Nehru said, ‘The office of CM is an institution. We must not attack the institutions made in democracy’,” Pawar says, expressing dismay at the way institutions “were targeted by the Modi government”.
I ask him why he gave Lok Sabha ticket to Parth Pawar, his grand-nephew who is a complete political novice.
“Why shouldn’t a young face get a chance? Maval was anyway a risky seat. Here, the party cadre requested to give candidature to Parth. So I relented. He is young and works hard,” he ays.
When asked about the initial nervousness seen in Parth’s body language, Pawar jumps to his defence. “There is a first time for everybody. When I had pushed Sushilkumar Shinde in politics, way back in the 70s, he was nervous during his first party address. But he went on to become the home minister of the country. Even for Parth, this is his first time,” he says.
“Is this a doting grandfather speaking?” I ask.
“No. I have always believed in giving opportunity to young faces. You talk of Parth because he is my grandson,” he hits back.
Rumours have been doing the rounds that Sharad Pawar had to bow down to family pressure from nephew Ajit Pawar (former deputy CM) and his wife.
But if one digs deeper, one finds several accounts in politics, of Sharad Pawar staying in touch with young leaders across party lines and of providing sound advice to them.
“I have started heeding Sharad Pawar’s advice now,” Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray had said in his speech during a book launch on Sharad Pawar’s 75th birthday in 2015.
Today, Raj Thackeray’s reincarnation in Maharashtra politics comes on the back of several meetings between Pawar and him. From Sushilkumar Shinde to Sanjay Raut, to Sitaram Yechury, to Raj Thackeray to Narendra Modi (once upon a time), he has guided many. At one point, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had roped him in for working on disaster management in India.
Our conversation is halted by a bunch of over-zealous party workers, who throng the narrow roads of Girgaum to shout slogans. Their bikes bring traffic to a standstill. Visibly upset, Pawar stops in the middle of the conversation. He halts his car to let pedestrians cross the street. The police vehicles that led the convoy now stand separated and anxious.
Frenzied bike-borne party workers gather around his car. Not sensing that he is upset with their show of strength in bringing traffic to a standstill, they smile and greet him. Pawar rolls down his window and signals them to move ahead soon. “People get angry. They curse us for causing such inconvenience to them,” he mutters.
“People aren't interested in what Mr Modi has said or in personal attacks on Rahul Gandhi or Sharad Pawar or anybody,” Pawar says, as we begin rolling the cameras. After the Girgaum rally, as we travel to Ulhasnagar in the neighbouring district of Thane for a night rally, we have nearly two hours to record his interview.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
“They raise certain issues. Their main interest in mofussil areas or rural areas is distress in agriculture. Secondly, in certain parts of the state the farming community has been facing drought. Thirdly, their cattle are not getting sufficient fodder,” he says.
“In such an area, women have to fetch water from far away. Another issue is irrational prices for their own products. Expectation is of remunerative prices. The ruling party has made a statement on many occasions that they will ensure two-and-a-half times the cost of cultivation to farmers. But the farmers aren’t getting that. They have also been claiming that they will double farmers’ income by such and such year. Now, the year has been changed. Looks like the new year is 2022. That means one has to wait for another 2-3 years.”
“Unemployment, especially among youngsters, rural population, younger generation, is high. They are very unhappy because they don't get opportunity to work. With certain decisions taken by the government, the expectation was that they must have given it a serious thought. They must have consulted experts and the outcome of their study must have been beneficial for the whole country, including us. For example, demonetisation,” he says.
“About 5 million youngsters have lost their jobs. Small traders have been seriously affected. Initially, people were thinking that this was good to control black money. But black money had two-three aspects. Black money means certain section which earns money and avoids taxes, and keeps that money for their own personal transactions. That is black money. But here, the farmers who sell certain vegetables in the market don’t get the price in cheque. In mandi, whatever he will sell, he will get cash. But that cash may not be accounted somewhere. That is not black money.”
‘PM, CM Making Childish Statements’
I ask him about the BJP’s jibe against him for backtracking from the Lok Sabha elections. He had earlier announced that he will contest the general elections from Madha constituency. Days later, he said that so many people from the Pawar family cannot be in the ring.
After announcing Parth’s candidature, he had declared that he won’t fight the elections. The BJP mocked at him, saying he feared defeat. During his public rallies in Maharashtra, Modi had asked Pawar why he would not fight elections.
“You see, in elections, somebody loses. First of all, I have never lost. He asks why I am not contesting. If I am not contesting, why isn't he giving seats to Murli Manohar Joshi and Advani? They took a conscious decision that they have reached a certain age. I also made the same decision. I am now 79. Someone has to stop. They immediately started saying, ‘You have lost’. It is a childish statement,” he retorts.
“Anybody can lose an election. Advani had lost. Indira Gandhi was the strongest PM of the country, she lost the election. Winning-losing is a part of elections. In 1980s, the Jan Sangh had only two MPs,” he said calmly.
Seconds later, as though hurt by the BJP’s barbs, he says, “Who are they talking about? The person who got elected 14 times and who has never lost an election. In 1977, even during the Janata wave, I did not lose. When Rajiv Gandhi became PM, I was in Congress (S). Indiraji's assassination had created a sympathy wave. And all other parties lost like anything. At that time as well, I contested against Congress (I) and I got No. 2 votes, next to Rajiv Gandhi. My mother was not assassinated. Sympathy was for Rajiv Gandhi. He got good votes. Knowing fully well my background, these people are talking of my fear of defeat.”
I ask him if he feels hurt that the man who had once spoken of him as a mentor, now targets him without fail. “No. What should I feel hurt about? It is a good thing that Mr Modi targets me. It means he has accepted our capability and our position in the public at large. It gives me free publicity. Anyway, no other party excluding BJP has money anymore,” he quips.
‘Modi Can Go to Any Extent’
Making oblique reference to the crackdown on opposition parties, Pawar further says, “Modi doesn't believe anybody who doesn't toe his line. If there is any effort to consolidate the position of political leaders against a particular thinking, and if Mr Modi is himself a part of that particular thinking, then he will not be able to digest this strategy. And for that, he will go to any extent,” he says.
But he also predicts that Modi will not be the prime minister after the election results are out.
“There is no possibility that the BJP will get complete majority this time. There is a possibility that it might become the single-largest party. Even if the BJP is the single-largest party, it will require support from some other forces. And I don't think there will be acceptability by others for Mr Modi's name. Other parties will not accept Mr Narendra Modi's name to lead their own coalition,” he says.
For Maharashtra, he predicts that the issues of drought and Maratha reservation will fester and trouble the government in the coming times.
It is almost 10:30 pm. In Ulhasnagar, the haphazardly developed town where Sindhi migrants had settled down after Partition, the NCP rally just ended. Sharad Pawar’s convoy has rested for nearly an hour and a half and snacked on vada-pavs that a party worker got for them from a local shop. As for him, he hasn’t had a sip of water or a bite of food. “I will have dinner after going back home,” he tells me as we get back in his car for the return journey.
We are joined by one of his party’s leaders, who fills him in with the details on local equations. After we cross Thane, he gets down. Seven hours and two rallies later, the septuagenarian is still energetic. It will take us another two hours to wrap up the day. We discuss about politics, crime and terror.
The conversations are off record. But there is one thing I can’t stop myself from writing about. That is his fight with oral cancer. I ask him what went through his mind in those days. “The doctor told me that I had very little time. But I thought, whoever fights, lives. At that moment, I decided that I will fight. And that is what I did,” he says in a matter-of-fact manner.
His friends tell me he is a very positive man who never dwells in negativity.
“He loves increasing his social reach, making plans, mentoring others. Though he isn’t contesting Lok Sabha elections, he still has two years of Rajya Sabha tenure ahead of him. He is fully aware that there might be a situation in Parliament where his political expertise can be put to good use. At 79, he is still very active and mobile. Maybe, during the next Lok Sabha elections, he will have to give guidance to others from the confines of his office. But currently, he is very much active, and he has plans,” says one of his close associates.
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