Why Sharad Pawar is a politician obsessed with staying in power

Sharad Pawar, the Maratha strongman, celebrated his 75th birthday last week. The entire who’s who of Indian political system President Pranab Mukherjee, vice president Hamid Ansari and Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended the event, to commemorate the occasion. Prominent politicians like Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, among others also shared the stage with Pawar.

The same day, his autobiography “On My Terms: From the Grassroots to the Corridors of Power” was also released. His name “Pawar” is synonymous with “power” in Indian political history. This is clearly evident in the way the word “power” finds a place in the title of his book.

It’s rumoured in political circles that Pawar can’t live without power. His entire career spanning 50 years in politics is testimony to this fact. He has switched sides, made friends with enemies, compromised with opponents, all in his zeal to stay in power at any cost.

He entered the Maharashtra Assembly in 1967 at a young age of 27. He slowly rose up the ranks in Maharashtra politics and the state Congress. He became the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra by toppling the Vasantdada Patil-led Congress government in 1978. He led a group of 40 MLAs to split from the parent party and formed the government with Janata Party’s support. In 1980, after Indira Gandhi swept the Lok Sabha polls, Pawar’s state government was dismissed. In the Maharashtra elections in 1980, his party lost.

Again in 1985, Pawar’s party the Indian National Congress (Socialist) won only 54 seats and he became the Leader of Opposition in Maharashtra. With the split and the decline of the Janata Party nationally, Pawar soon realised that he can’t get back to power in Maharashtra on his own.

Pawar merged his party back into the Congress in 1986. The Shiv Sena was spreading its wings in Maharashtra and Rajiv Gandhi needed a strong man to keep them in check. Lady luck smiled on Pawar again when Rajiv called the incumbent Maharashtra chief minister Shankarrao Chavan to join the Central cabinet, and Pawar again got a shot a chief ministership in 1988 (within two years of joining the Congress back).

After death of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Pawar made a bid to become the prime minister but as he writes in his book, Sonia Gandhi didn’t want somebody with an independent mind to be prime minister. Instead, PV Narasimha Rao was chosen for the top job. Pawar, though unhappy, took up the defence portfolio and swallowed his pride again for the sake of power. In 1993 he was sent back to Maharashtra as chief minister by the Congress. In the 1995 state elections, the Congress lost handsomely to the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.

After the 1995 loss and with no prospects in the state for Pawar for the next five years, he shifted again to Central politics and won his Lok Sabha seat from Baramati in 1996. He unsuccessfully made a bid to be the Congress president in 1996 but lost to Sitaram Kesri.

In snap polls in 1999, Pawar opposed Sonia being chosen as the Congress prime ministerial candidate owing to the latter’s foreign origin. Essentially, Pawar saw that his dream to become the prime minister would be permanently punctured if Sonia was projected as the leader of the Congress. The foreign origin issue was just an excuse. He, along with PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar, were suspended from the party and they formed jthe Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in May 1999. The fact that the foreign origin issue was just an excuse is evident from the fact that none of the election manifestos of the NCP or the party’s charter talk about it.

In Assembly elections held in Maharashtra in September 1999, the BJP-Sena alliance failed to get a majority (with 125 out of 288 seats). The Congress won 75 and Pawar’s NCP 58 seats, fighting separately. Pawar had proved that the Congress couldn’t win the state without him. Pawar, however, again showed he could be flexible for the sake of power. Within four months of his breaking away from the Congress, he was ready to do a deal with the same party that was still under the leadership of the same person of foreign origin, which ostensibly he didn’t like and hence had split. The very basis of the split and the NCP’s existence was compromised. NCP-Congress formed a coalition government.

Before the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, Pawar reportedly held talks with former BJP general secretary, the late Pramod Mahajan, to explore possibility of a deal between two the parties as he thought AB Vajpayee could win a second term. The talks had to be terminated after the Shiv Sena, an old NDA partner, protested. With this masterstroke he thought NCP could stay in power in both the Centre and Maharashtra.

The BJP lost the polls despite the aggressive “India Shining” campaign. The Congress failed to get a majority on its own and Pawar joined the UPA government at the Centre. During 2004-’14 Pawar served as minister of agriculture in the UPA government, while Sonia (whom he called a foreigner and opposed tooth and nail) was the chairperson of the UPA.

In 2004, the Congress-NCP alliance won the Maharashtra elections bagging 140 seats. In spite of the NCP getting 71 and Congress 69 seats, Pawar settled for deputy chief minister’s post for his party in lieu of two additional cabinet and three additional ministerial berths. In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Pawar decided not to contest and instead opted for the Rajya Sabha. In case of a hung Parliament, he would even have considered supporting the BJP. However, BJP won an absolute majority on its own. Pawar was left high and dry.

In the Maharashtra Assembly elections in October 2014, soon after the BJP announced it would contest alone, without the Shiv Sena, the wily Pawar also announced his break up with the Congress. He could smell an opportunity to remain in power in Maharashtra but this time with the help of the BJP. It could have also opened doors for Pawar returning to the Central cabinet. The BJP fell short of majority as he had anticipated and the NCP jumped onto the bandwagon announcing unconditional support. Anything to remain in power! The BJP somehow resisted this temptation and went along with its old partner Shiv Sena.

Pawar, it is said, has friends in all parties and leverages his contacts to his advantage. It is no secret that Pawar has ambitions to become the prime minister. He missed out in 1991 and may well have got a shot at the top post in 2004 and 2009 if he remained in the Congress. With his political career almost over, his last chance to become the prime minister will be in 2019. He would be hoping for a hung Parliament and a HD Deve Gowda moment. If Deve Gowda can become prime minister, why not Pawar? Ummeed pe duniya kayam hai!

Not only in the political field, Pawar, was also the most powerful administrator of the richest cricket board in the world – the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India). He was BCCI president from 2005 to 2008 and also the International Cricket Council (ICC) president from 2010 to 2012. The Indian Premier League (IPL) was launched during his tenure. Such is his fixation with power that he successfully contested elections for the post of president of the Bombay Cricket Association recently.

You can imagine the lust for power of a person who has been the ICC president contesting for the post of MCA president. It’s like a former prime minister contesting for the post of a mayor. If he was elected unopposed it would have been a different matter. He won the elections again mainly owing to the support of the BJP.

The entire career of Pawar shows how he always has an eye on opportunities, understands them and does not pounce at them unless he knows that the risks involved will not cause him any serious damage. He has always been on the lookout for ways to grab power and remain in power. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during Pawar’s book launch, “He has the quality of a farmer who can gauge the weather. Sharad Rao has used it fully in politics. Ask Sharad Rao which way the political wind will blow.”

Now Pawar is out of power both at the Centre and the state. The BJP recent strain in relationship with the Shiv Sena is being keenly followed by him. If the Sena pulls out of this alliance, the NCP will pounce and make an effort to join the NDA. It remains to be seen if lady luck will smile on him again. Long live Power, err Pawar…

With inputs from Risha Bhattacharya.

This post has also been published in Dailyo.

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