Even in ‘twilight zone’, flame still flickers bright for Pawar

In one of his famous couplets, poet Mirza Ghalib says a flame burns in many colours till it is dawn. It is an apt description for Maratha satrap Sharad Pawar, who in the twilight of his career, has flickered into life with mesmerising shades of politics that have changed the hues of Maharashtra’s firmament.

Bear no doubt in the mind over the writer, director of the current drama in Maharashtra even if the cast of characters is varied. It is Pawar’s show all the way, with some of the acts being staged behind the curtains, and some under the glare of TV and public.

Every drama has a context, a setting that makes it relevant for the times. The Maharashtra story had started taking shape around six years ago when the BJP had started taking over the role of the elder brother, relegating the erstwhile senior partner of the alliance, the Shiv Sena, to the role of the junior.

The Sena, remember, always called the shots in Maharashtra till the 2014 assembly polls—its nominees were always the automatic choice for the chief minister’s post if the alliance won the elections. In 2014, when it suddenly came face to face with the rise of the BJP as the regional hegemon, the Sena was suddenly faced with a new threat—that of a partner being a future replacement and rival. Back then, with numbers stacked in favour of the BJP, it had no other choice but to accept the deputy’s role in Maharashtra, swallow the humiliation of its protégé Suresh Prabhu become a member of the BJP and also the Union cabinet, and settle for whatever little was thrown at it from the pie at the Centre.

The Sena sulked for six years. It critiqued the BJP, mocked the Centre’s decisions—demonetisation, for instance—and sporadically praised rivals like Rahul Gandhi and Pawar. But, in spite of the bluster, it stayed loyal to the BJP. Enter Pawar.

Soon after results of the Assembly polls indicated that the BJP was not in a position to form the government alone, Pawar worked behind the scenes to stoke the pride and ambition of the Thackerays, rally the support of the Congress for a possible alliance with the Sena and keep the BJP out of power.

Sources within the Sena-NCP camp reveal Pawar convinced the Thackerays that the alliance is hurting the Sena. His statistic was simple: in 2014 the Sena won 68 seats when it contested independently but in 2019 the number fell to 54. So, the NCP argued, if the Sena has to protect its base, the only option is to become independent of the ally again.

Pawar’s nephew Ajit and daughter Supriya Sule meanwhile convinced the Thackerays of their support for Aditya’s candidature as chief minister. They not only promised the NCP’s support but also convinced them the Congress would be willing to do business with the Sena to keep the BJP out.

So, how were the Pawars sure of a positive response from the Congress. Two reasons are attributed to that. One, the Congress under Sonia Gandhi now listens more to its regional leaders. Its old guard led by Ahmed Patel and Avinash Pandey had assessed that almost all its elected legislators were keen to keep the BJP out. So, the Congress support was a viable option.

Here again Pawar worked his magic. First he convinced Uddhav Thackeray to call Sonia Gandhi and seek her support. Then, he convinced the Congress chief that a stable government with a common minimum programme is in everybody’s interest. In all likelihood, the Congress will soon be part of a Sena-NCP government.

Pawar’s transformation from the man on the verge of retirement to the master strategist is fascinating, even more so considering that he had left the Congress in protest against Sonia Gandhi’s anointment as president of the party. But, he has earned his new role by turning adversity into an opportunity—the ED notice to him turned into a rallying point for the party—and through shrewd, calculated moves whose outcome is trusted by even arch rivals.

Pawar’s flame is burning bright at a time when the opposition needs a beacon. It is likely that he will soon attract moths from other regions where satraps are scared the rise of the BJP as a pan-India party.