Sharad Pawar has paid the ultimate tribute to Sonia Gandhi, in opposition to whose leadership of the Congress he had left the Grand Old Party — after all, imitation is the highest form of flattery.
In 1999, when Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma, and Tariq Anwar had broken away from the Congress, saying they could not stomach foreigner Sonia being chosen as the president of the party, Sonia Gandhi resigned from her newly elected post. That set off an emotional upheaval in the party, with everyone who had stayed back being forced to join the chorus — started by some genuine votaries of a Congress led by a Gandhi — asking, beseeching, pleading with Sonia Gandhi to take back her resignation and take charge of the party. She complied, and led a relatively unified party.
That Sharad Pawar has had to stage a “Resigning Sonia” act confirms the need for the party he had founded, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), to be unified.
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The Supreme Court is close to delivering a verdict on the validity of the non-disqualification of 16 MLAs belonging to the breakaway faction of the Shiv Sena led by Eknath Shinde, who had, in June 2022, split the Sena and joined hands with the waiting BJP to replace the Sena-led government of Maharashtra. Legislators who defect from the party on whose platform they got elected are supposed to be disqualified.
But the Shinde faction was allowed to take part in a trial of strength on the floor of the House, leading to Uddhav Thackeray’s resignation and Shinde’s swearing-in as Chief Minister, with the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis holding the reins of real power, as Deputy Chief Minister. The reason cited for the departure from the norm was that there was no Speaker and the officiating chair, the deputy speaker, faced a no-confidence motion, which, according to the Shinde faction, disqualified him from disqualifying the defecting legislators.
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The merits of such arguments are being considered by a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. In case the Court finds that the defectors should have been disqualified and should not have voted in the test of strength on the floor of the House, the Shinde government will fall. A new government will be in office till October 2024, when the next election to the assembly is due. Who will form that government? That is the question that shakes up the solidity of the NCP.
Ajit Pawar’s “defection”
Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar’s nephew and long-time second-in-command, is widely believed to be keen to join hands with the BJP and become chief minister of the state. Even if this is just speculation without any basis in fact, other party members could be tempted away by offers of ministerial berths and money. Some second-rung leader of the party could be found to lead a breakaway faction of power-hungry legislators to the BJP’s camp, to form the next ruling coalition.
It is being held against Ajit Pawar that he had taken part in an unsuccessful attempt to form an NCP-BJP government, in the wake of the 2019 elections to the assembly, after the Shiv Sena had parted company with its electoral ally, the BJP. The Governor, who had placed the state under President’s rule after finding that no one had a majority, lifted President’s rule and swore in Fadnavis as Chief Minister and Ajit Pawar as Deputy Chief Minister.
After that, all the NCP legislators withdrew their support to that government and backed Uddhav Thackeray’s claim to be chief minister, as leader of a newly formed coalition of the Sena with the Congress and the NCP. Ajit Pawar also came back to the NCP, suggesting that that short-lived tie-up between the NCP and the BJP was but a ploy to persuade the Governor to lift President’s rule and enable the Sena-NCP-Congress alliance to stake its claim to form the government.
Ajit Pawar, in that episode, proved a willing soldier of the party, risking the stigma of being a defector to counter the Governor’s precipitous move of declaring President’s rule in the state. There is no real reason to believe that he would risk his long-anticipated chance to succeed Sharad Pawar as the next leader of the NCP by joining hands with the BJP.
What’s in Pawar’s mind?
Is Pawar Sr himself preparing to ditch the Congress and the Sena, and walk over to the BJP? He has, after all, been defending Savarkar and opposing the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee investigation into Adani’s operations.
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This, too, is most unlikely. Indira Gandhi, politically savvier than her son or grandson, had released a postage stamp commemorating Savarkar. In doing this, she was simply acknowledging the popular sentiment of Maharashtra, which saw then, and continues to see now, Savarkar primarily as a freedom fighter. Pawar is at least as much a realist as Mrs Gandhi had been. As for his stand on Adani, it is hardly surprising, given his support for industry and prosperity in general and for western India’s industrial champions such as Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani in particular.
Adani might have a special relationship with Narendra Modi, but he began his career of fast growth, undertaking demanding infrastructure projects in ports and power before that association began, and he remains one of India’s handful of efficient executors of large, complex projects within the budgeted time and money.
He operates, like other businessmen in India, in a framework in which corruption is systemic, integral to political funding and the greasing of the wheels of governance, and projects are financed, to a significant extent, by bank loans, sanctioned at the discretion of a small number of decision makers, rather than by corporate bonds, vetted repeatedly by analysts, brokerages, and credit rating agencies, and marked to the market on an ongoing basis.
By dissenting on holding Adani to a higher standard than the one that applies to his fellow businessmen, Pawar only refuses to put Adani on a pedestal or to scapegoat an industrialist as part of a campaign against a political rival. It is no sign of any desire to walk over to the BJP camp.
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That leaves as the only likely reason for Pawar’s resignation drama the need to let loose a wave of emotion that would serve as a glue that binds the party together, in the face of strong, dissolving temptation being poured on the party by a predatory BJP on the hunt for defectors to make up for likely disqualification of the Shinde faction supporting its government in Maharashtra. If that makes it look as if he is flattering Sonia Gandhi, Pawar is too hard-nosed a politician to let that come in the way of acting out his political imperative.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi)
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