The old political saying in Mumbai is “what Pawar thinks, what he says, and what he does are three completely different things”. Yes, it is not easy to take him for a ride or take him for granted. A leader with utmost understanding for Indian politics has his firm grip on power corridors. When you talk about Maharashtra politics, you cannot ignore the contribution of Sharad Pawar. Over the last 50 years, Maharashtra politics has spun him, and at the age of 80, he has fought many such brutal skirmishes. In 2019, he just refuted Modi-Shah’s political game plans by instilling new confidence in opposition parties in the country. Modi and BJP followers used to be overconfident about Amit Shah by calling him Chanakya, a strategist, but one Maratha shriveled them to size. There are few Indian politicians as enigmatic as Sharad Pawar. I can confidently say, with Sharad Pawar Maharashtra politics will have its existence and without him, state politics would be orphaned.
Ironically, his political party saw many opportunists who flipped their loyalties with time, more than a dozen leaders and an NCP Member of Parliament switched sides ahead of the elections. People also thought that his family looked to be splitting apart. But that can never happen as Pawar knows how to hold the roots of his family. The fact is that Pawar has never been the kind of statewide mass leader that the national media projects him as. His main base has been confined to his western Maharashtra bastion, where he keeps grip over his agrarian Maratha caste base. But he has never, for example, led the Congress, or indeed, the NCP to a majority win in Maharashtra, often relying on breakups and post-poll deals to glue his position in the state. He has successfully expanded his influence beyond Maharashtra. But the politics of the center has always betrayed him of opportunities. He had several chances to become prime minister, but his fate was blocked in the devious power corridors of the Delhi durbar. What Pawar has been, though, is a tireless, resourceful leader, and a perceptive political negotiator, living by the proverb of “no permanent friends or enemies in politics, but permanent benefits”. This has enabled him to build a wide network of friends and allies across party lines in Maharashtra and Deli as well. When he turned 75 in 2015, the entire political class, from Narendra Modi to Sonia Gandhi, were in attendance — the same Sonia Gandhi whose foreign origins had led Pawar to leave the Congress in 1999, but with whom he wholeheartedly forged an alliance in Maharashtra and at the Centre. NCP and Congress really changed the shape of Maharashtra in all dimensions, but the irony is that BJP government created a native through their media mouthpieces, also social media battalions and I.T. cell squads. They spend all their energies talking about Congress-NCP corruption and the merits of BJP. They changed political perceptions with their propaganda machineries. Modi alone was projected as a hero and rest everyone as corrupt.
Meanwhile, the agitation by Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev against Congress-NCP gave a political opportunity to Modi and BJP.
Huge money was spent on making Modi a political brand. On the other hand, Congress has leadership crises, and Pawar had to bear the burns of local politics and political vendetta. We can say that the voters of India were conditioned. In spite of being surrounded with such odds, Pawar stood straight, without taking any nonsense from Modi or BJP. He was named in an enforcement directorate First Information Report (FIR), a move that in retrospection may have been Devendra Fadnavis’s unforgivable mistake. It virtually signaled an open war between an ageing regional satrap and the ambitious star of Maharashtra politics. Cutting across party divides, Pawar’s networking skills are legendary. His friendships span across national and international boundaries and are closely guarded. Those who know him point out that he has a photographic memory — he rarely forgets any incident or a name.
The BJP’s big two may be seen as a political Chanakyas, but “Chanakya-neeti” cannot be built around threats and intimidation of smaller parties. It needs deft handling of bruised egos and a bit of give-and-take, rather than bullying people into submission. The spectre of a “dossier raj”, where State power is used for crushing political opponents, breeds suspicion and enmity, which is where Shah-Modi could perhaps take a leaf out of the Pawar playbook. Real politics is not just about the stick; it is often about the carrot top. Those who know Pawar say he is a silent worker. His sharpness has become a subject of drawing room humor. “His left brain does not know what the right brain is doing” and “his brain can defeat any computer” are the popular murmurs that cause much hilarity.
It is this capacity to cut through personal and ideological divides that have sustained “Pawar power” over the years. He was, in a sense, the original coalition-era politician. His Progressive Democratic Front-led government in Maharashtra in 1978 brought together the then Jan Sangh and socialists under one umbrella. And while the Shiv Sena was ostensibly a political opponent, Pawar never targeted Sena supremo Bal Thackeray beyond a point. Whether out of mutual respect or mutual convenience, the Pawar-Thackeray equation is proof of the politics of conciliation that has marked Maharashtra’s landscape. Unlike West Bengal or a Tamil Nadu, where fierce individual battles are waged and political adversaries vilified and even jailed, Maharashtra’s politics is built around quid pro quo deal-making.
A four-time chief minister of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar is considered to be a friend of the farmers. His work in bringing in a culture of building percolation tanks in the rural areas to strengthen the groundwater levels has found many takers. In fact, he has been instrumental in bringing in the Israeli agricultural methods to Maharashtra which has helped enhance produce. He has also held the defence and agriculture portfolios at the Centre. The NCP chief’s political career has been peppered with much drama and breakups. In 1977, when Indira Gandhi broke up the Congress into Congress (I) and Congress (U), Pawar chose to go with his mentor Yeshwantrao Chavan to Congress (U). Chavan, the first chief minister of Maharashtra and the fifth Deputy Prime Minister of India, was one of the most powerful politicians in Maharashtra. Pawar has, on numerous occasions admitted to the impact Chavan had on him. In 1978, Pawar quit Congress (U) and formed a coalition government — the Democratic Progressive Government — with the Janata Party. At 38, he became the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra. His return to the Congress (I) in 1987 is considered to be the turning point for the Shiv Sena. His closeness to Bal Thackeray, the founder of the Shiv Sena, saw the saffron party grow by leaps. In June 1999, Pawar once again broke away from the Congress questioning Sonia Gandhi’s foreign antecedents and her suitability to become the prime minister. Demanding that a native-born should be holding that position, Pawar along with two other Congressmen — PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar — established the NCP. A few months later, after the Maharashtra assembly polls of that year, however, Pawar’s NCP aligned with the Congress to form a coalition government in the state. He later supported the tie-up citing regional compulsions. Despite numerous charges of corruption leveled against him from various quarters, the veteran leader has always walked away untouched. He has filed defamation cases against his accusers and ensured that the loud voices became whispers.
A member of the Rajya Sabha, he was in 2017 conferred with the Padma Vibhushan by PM Narendra Modi. He was awarded as an outstanding Parliamentarian, in 2003 from the then President of India Pratibha Patil. Lawrence Technological University, Southfield, Michigan, Detroit, U.S. bestowed him with an Honorary Doctoral Degree in Humanities.
He is one tall leader, who mentored many politicians of Maharashtra, he also knows how to make and when to break. Fighter but not quitter, Maharashtra needs the most, because at this time “Pawar is power and Power is Pawar”. The state still needs to breathe free from false clutches of supremacy, and that can happen only with his presence.