“I had my first brush with administration when I was barely three days old, cradled in the arms of my mother. Sharadabai Govindrao Pawar had a meeting to attend at the Pune Local Board, of which she was a member, on 15 December 1940. Although she had delivered a baby boy just three days earlier, she was not one to miss her call of duty.”
These are the opening lines of NCP chief Sharad Govindrao Pawar’s autobiography, On My Terms: From the Grassroots to the Corridors of Power. The title of his autobiography perhaps summarises his six-decade long political journey in a nutshell. Pawar emerged as a mass leader after passing through the rough and tumble of politics on his own terms, whether being the chief minister of Maharashtra, a Union minister in New Delhi, or a kingmaker in state and central politics. He was among those in the race of prime ministership after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and is often dubbed as “the best prime minister India never had”.
The unpredictable Maratha
The wily Maratha satrap is hogging the limelight these days for breaking ranks with the Congress and other Opposition parties on the issue of a JPC probe into Adani issue. However, this is not the first time that Pawar has stumped his allies and detractors with his political stand.
Also read: Pawar first Opposition leader to back Adani, says Hindenburg ‘targeted’ conglomerate
Prior to 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had mounted an aggressive attack on the Modi government over the Rafale issue, Pawar had virtually come out in the favour of the prime minister, stating that the people do not see Prime Minister Narendra Modi with suspicion in Rafale deal. However, unlike Adani issue now, he had then surprisingly advocated the need for a JPC probe into it. “The way the Centre is unwilling to reveal the details is creating doubts. It should appoint a joint parliamentary committee to probe the deal,” he had stated. This is precisely the reason that Pawar is seen as an unpredictable leader in the political circles.
In another recent move that took many by surprise, the NCP extended support to Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphu Rio’s NDPP, which is BJP’s ruling alliance partner in the state, contending that it is in the larger interest of the state. Similarly, in Kerala too, the NCP is part of the Left Democratic Front, an arch rival of the Congress-led United Democratic Front.
Love-hate relationship with Cong
The Maratha strongman and the Congress have always shared love-hate relationship. He kicked off his political career as a Congress legislator from his hometown Baramati in 1967. In 1969, he joined the Congress (R) faction of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi along with his mentor Yashwantrao Chavan. In July 1978, he brought down the Congress government and joined hands with Janata Party to become the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra at 38.
Pawar returned to the party in 1987 when Rajiv Gandhi was leading it. He was expelled from the party in 1999 after he raised the issue of then party president Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. However, the love for the Congress wasn’t lost and in October 1999, when Maharashtra threw a fractured mandate and the Congress fell short of a majority, Pawar turned kingmaker. The two parties joined hands to form a coalition government in Maharashtra in 1999 to prevent the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance from returning to power. In 2004, Pawar joined the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which remained in power till 2014.
Bonhomie with PM Modi
Post-2014, amid the political tussle, the camaraderie between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pawar has come to the fore on various occasions. Pawar has often extended help to the BJP in the hour of need whether it was to help the party sail through the trust vote in Maharashtra in 2014 or extending support on crucial issues in the Rajya Sabha. Pawar’s move to virtually throw his weight behind Modi on the Rafale issue ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and now on the Adani row ahead of the 2024 general elections are also being seen in the same light.
Also read: Will ensure MVA contests Maha assembly and Lok Sabha polls together: Sharad Pawar
Pawar had left many surprised when in an interview with a Marathi news channel in 2019, he said that Modi had proposed “working together” but that he had rejected the offer. Pawar denied that Modi offered him the post of President of India, but said, “There surely was an offer to make Supriya (Sule) a minister in the Modi cabinet.” All this happened when Pawar had met Modi in the Parliament on November 20, 2019, amid hectic political developments in Maharashtra.
In 2016, when Modi visited Pune, he praised Pawar as an “example” for others in public life. “I have personal respect for Pawar. I was the Gujarat Chief Minister that time. He helped me walk by holding my finger. I feel proud to pronounce this publicly,” he had stated.
Interestingly, though the NCP has been time and again flirting with the BJP, it never crossed over to join hands with the BJP. The only time it came close to doing it was when Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar, in a midnight coup, joined hands with BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis to take oath and form the government in Maharashtra early in the morning on November 23, 2019. However, the government lasted for just about 80 hours before collapsing in wake of Ajit Pawar’s resignation. Years later, Fadnavis claimed that the move had the backing of Sharad Pawar, though the latter rejected the charge.
Astute yet amiable leader
An astute politician, Pawar is known for sharing a good rapport with the leaders in the entire political spectrum, cutting across the party lines. Many a times he has set aside the ideological differences to either seek or extend support at the time of crisis. For instance, when his daughter Supriya Sule was contesting her maiden Rajya Sabha elections, she was supported by the Shiv Sena in 2006.
Similarly, when the BJP and the Shiv Sena fought 2014 elections without an alliance and the BJP fell short of a majority, the NCP announced its support to its political rival “to avoid mid-term polls and ensure political stability”. Subsequently, the NCP abstained during the trust vote by BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis. Later, the Shiv Sena and the BJP reunited to form a government and Fadnavis took oath as the chief minister.
The Maha Vikas Aghadi experiment
Sharad Pawar’s handling of the political crisis over the government formation in Maharashtra in 2019 reinforced his political acumen. He not only spearheaded the dramatic divorce of ideological twins BJP and Shiv Sena but also stitched perhaps the most unlikely alliance in India’s political history in the form of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) – the coalition of NCP, Shiv Sena and Congress.
In November 2019, the unimaginable happened in Maharashtra when Sonia Gandhi was seen with Balasaheb Thackeray in posters and hoardings across the state. It was Pawar who made it happen. Though the MVA government collapsed after Eknath Shinde’s rebellion in June last year, the MVA is still intact and Pawar is the major driving force behind the alliance.
The recent successes of the MVA in the Maharashtra Legislative Council elections in which the alliance defeated the ruling BJP in Union minister Nitin Gadkari’s home turf Nagpur, and the Kasba Peth assembly bypoll, in which the MVA wrested the seat from the BJP after 28 years, shows that Pawar’s political experiment pays off even in the electoral arena. The alliance is already giving jitters to the BJP as both Lok Sabha and assembly elections in Maharashtra are due next year.
What next for Maratha satrap?
The octogenarian Maratha is one of the tallest Opposition leaders and would play a critical role in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, 2024. He may have expressed views that are at variance with most of the Opposition parties on the Adani issue, but he would continue to be a major figure in the Opposition camp.
In Maharashtra, Pawar remains the ace troubleshooter for the MVA alliance and he has time and again proved his ability to handle the toughest of crisis. He recently brokered peace between the Congress and the Shiv Sena after Rahul Gandhi’s remarks against Hindutva ideologue VD Savarkar drew flak from the Shiv Sena (UBT). He also stood by Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray all through his stint as the Maharashtra chief minister.
Also read: Maharashtra CM urges opposition to pay heed to Pawar’s Adani statement
In the national politics, you may love or hate Sharad Pawar, but you cannot ignore him. Nobody can deny the fact that Pawar’s heft would be needed, if any anti-BJP front has to be formed ahead of the general elections. He has already laid out the prerequisites for forging the Opposition unity by stating that a united Opposition front to challenge the BJP will only be possible if it has clarity on issues and a common programme and direction for the parties to work together.
At 82, Pawar remains a force to reckon with in Maharashtra and a towering figure in the national politics.