In the 1996 General elections, Sharad Pawar won from Baramati and has not returned to the State Assembly since. In June 1997, he unsuccessfully challenged Sitaram Kesri for the post of Congress President. In the mid-term parliamentary elections of 1998, Pawar not only won from his constituency, Baramati but also led the Congress to a significant win in Maharashtra. His move to join forces with Republican Party of India (Athvale) and Samajwadi Party brought rich dividends and the Congress party and allies won 37 seats out of 48 in the state. Pawar served as Leader of Opposition in 12th Lok Sabha. In June 1999, Pawar and Sangma founded the Nationalist Congress Party. His party had formed an alliance with the Congress party to form a coalition government in Maharashtra as neither party could win an absolute majority on its own in the 1999 assembly elections. Pawar, however, did not return to state politics, and Vilasrao Deshmukh of the Congress was chosen as Chief Minister, with Chagan Bhujbal representing the Nationalist Congress Party as his deputy. The alliance has endured at the national and state level to this day. Sharad Pawar joined the United Progressive Alliance government headed by Manmohan Singh as the Minister for Agriculture and Food after 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Unlike many other politicians, Pawar also believes in entrepreneurship and attracting foreign investment. But Pawar has failed to expand his base beyond western Maharashtra.
His biggest achievement was to become the Maharashtra chief minister for the first time at the age of 38 in 1978. This he did by toppling the Congress government of Vasantdada Patil by splitting the party, and forming a government in coalition with the Janata Party under the banner of the Progressive Democratic Front. Pawar had entered the assembly for the first time in 1967 from Baramati which remains his pocket borough. Pawar put Baramati on Maharashtra’s political map. Baramati was a rural, agricultural region until he came on the scene. Today, his constituency is one of the most industrialized region in western Maharashtra. And though Baramati has always received scanty rainfall, the water management scheme launched by Pawar back in 1970 ensures even today that the region is not affected when the rest of the state is suffering from a drought. Thanks to this work, Pawar’s victory in Baramati is always a foregone conclusion. He won the seat by a huge margin in 1984, when the tidal wave of sympathy for the late Indira Gandhi washed away even stalwarts like Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In fact, Pawar’s election campaign in Baramati is usually restricted to one public meeting on the last day. This leaves him a lot of time to campaign for his party’s candidates elsewhere in the state.
With such a solid base, Pawar has been able to retain his influence even when he has been out of the Congress, in the period from 1978 to 1986, or after forming the Nationalist Congress Party in 1999. The closest he came to realising his dream was in 1991, after the Congress came to power in the post-Rajiv Gandhi era. But he had to settle for the job of defence minister under P V Narasimha Rao.
Pawar has the image of being untrustworthy. His abandoning his mentor Yashwantrao Chavan to win power continues to haunt him. He has also been involved in his fair share of controversies, including the Enron fiasco. It was his government that cleared the Enron project in 1993. Also, Pawar has failed to expand his base beyond western Maharashtra. Nephew Ajit sulked as Sharad Pawar rejected him for Deputy CM’s post. Tension was rife in the ranks of the NCP after senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar was pipped at the post in the race to the deputy chief minister ship of Maharashtra by Chhagan Bhujbal. What made the cut unkinder was that the portfolio went to Bhujbal on the say-so of Ajit’s uncle, NCP supremo Sharad Pawar tipped Ajit as a dark horse with bright chances.
The NCP legislature party meeting began its proceedings under considerable strain, as the clash between Bhujbal and Ajit was out in the open. Both leaders had staked their claim to the post of DCM Bhujbal, champion of the OBC cause in the Maratha-dominated party, had made it a prestige issue and was seen arguing with Praful Patel, Govindrao Adik, Tariq Anwar and D P Tripathi, the central observers appointed by Sharad Pawar. Seeing the direct conflict between the two leaders, the third contender, R R Patil, did not stake his claim at all.
Eager to avoid a clash at all costs, Patel stopped some MLAs from speaking by pointing out that there was no need for any speech as the meeting was going to adopt a single-line resolution authorising Sharad Pawar to decide who should be the next DCM. Ajit, who wields a lot of political clout, was in a fix. Some of his supporters suggested that the observers should at least conduct a head count to see who got more support among the newly elected MLAs. However, the request was turned down. Finally, when Patel announced Pawar’s decision that the party would continue with Bhujbal, Ajit, along with his supporters, walked out of the venue.
Ajit Pawar’s supporters were extremely upset, as he had collected 14 independent MLAs for the meeting to boost the party’s support base from 62 to 76 and enhance his bargaining power. Even at the legislature party meeting, although there was no voting, 34 out of 62 legislators are reported to have expressed their view in his favour.
Since 1999, Ajit had never shown any interest in becoming a deputy chief minister due to his belief that all those who became DCM, right from Nasikrao Tirpude to Gopinath Munde, never made it to the chief ministership. His supporters believed that he would become a chief minister straightaway as and when there was a chance for the NCP. However, with the rise of Supriya Sule, Sharad Pawar’s daughter, even die-hard Ajit supporters began to wonder whether he had a chance to make it to the top post, and pressurised him to throw his hat in the ring.
Bhujbal, however, called on Pawar in Delhi and reportedly threatened him with dire political consequences if his claim was ignored. The OBC leader, who has been actively involved in building up the NCP since its inception in 1999, was DCM from 1999 to 2003. He was reappointed on December 4, 2008 when R R Patil was asked to step down after the terrorist attack on Mumbai.
Patel, while declaring Bhujbal’s name as the next DCM, asserted that there was no problem within the NCP and that all was well after Pawar announced his preference. However, Ajit was untraceable after the meeting. Sources say he was in a huddle with his supporters to assess why he was denied the chance to become DCM when Pawar had all along been harping on giving a chance to the younger generation. Later on even Ajit was settled on good deal by possessing power and energy portfolio. It’s high time Pawar should focus on right moves and sustain with the integrity of the party.
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