Debating India


The Pawar and the Glory

Saturday 5 June 1999, by SAINATH*P.

Sharad Pawar’s revolt certainly redraws the pollscape. But it could be the saffron alliance that benefits more than his proposed new party.

THAT Sharad Pawar is likely to cause a severe setback to the Congress(I) in Maharashtra - and hence nationally - is not in doubt. (The largest chunk of Congress(I) members in the 12th Lok Sabha, constituting 33 members, was from Maharashtra.) Nor can it be disputed that, his opportunism aside, the party is paying the price for its own degenerate political culture. A more interesting question is: will the damage he inflicts translate into a large number of seats for his proposed new party? Or will it sim ply result in doubling the number of seats that a discredited Bharatiya Janata Partry-Shiv Sena alliance could otherwise have hoped for?

The record shows that Sharad Pawar has never once led the Congress(I) - or any other political formation - to a majority win in an Assembly election in Maharashtra. In 1978, Pawar broke the Government of Vasantdada Patil (which combined the two factions of the split, post-Emergency Congress). Walking out with a group of followers, he formed the Progressive Democratic Front (PDF) and became the State’s youngest Chief Minister. This was obviously not an elected government but one of defectors.

In 1980, a resurgent Congress(I) took 186 out of 288 seats in the Assembly. The front led by Pawar - of which he was unquestioned leader - could not manage half of that. Pawar was out in the sticks. In the Lok Sabha polls, the Congress (Reddy), which he led to form the PDF, lost all the seats it contested but one. It retained only Satara, because of the stature of its candidate there - Y.B. Chavan. Even Pawar’s home ground of Baramati was lost to the Congress(I). In 1984, the Congress(I) actually incre ased its Lok Sabha tally from 39 to 43 out of 48 seats.

Nonetheless, in 1985, virtually the entire Opposition rallied behind Pawar again, placing their faith in his vote-pulling ability. The situation seemed favourable for him. Maharashtra had witnessed the scandalous rule of A.R. Antulay, and also the comic interlude when Babasaheb Bhosale became Chief Minister (1982-83). Then came Vasantdada Patil, Shivajirao Patil Nilangekar and S.B. Chavan.

In a space of five years, the Congress(I) had had as many Chief Ministers. This had never happened in Maharashtra and was a pathetic performance by any standards. The Congress(I) deserved to be routed. Yet, the combined Opposition led by Pawar was crushe d. The Congress(I) took 162 of the 288 seats. Pawar’s Congress (S), despite the help of a wide spectrum of Opposition parties, managed 54.

The "Maratha strongman" - as the press is fond of calling him - spent the next year negotiating a humiliating return to the Congress(I). This meant betraying the Opposition parties that had projected him as their top leader. He managed to do that without batting an eyelid. For the third time since 1980, the Opposition learnt of Pawar’s kiss-of-death effect. Within the Congress(I), he was soon back to stoking factionalism. Two more Congress Chief Ministers lost their jobs. Then, in June 1988, Pawar was b ack as Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

Again, he was heading a government on whose platform he had not been elected - a platform that he had vehemently opposed in the very election, which had brought that government to power. In 1990, Pawar for the first time led the Congress(I) in an Assemb ly election. The result: a party that held well over 160 seats in the outgoing Assembly got its strength reduced to 141 - less than the halfway mark in a House of 288.

This was, however, increased to 177 the next year - by splitting the Shiv Sena. Of the 36 seats the Congress(I) added to its original tally, just one came in a by-election; the rest came through defections. Pawar had moved to the Centre and Sudhakarrao N aik, initially his friend, was Chief Minister. Naik later turned hostile to Pawar and paid the price for it. When Mumbai was rocked by riots in 1992-93, one of the frequent charges (heard often during the sittings of the Srikrishna Commission) was Defenc e Minister Pawar’s reluctance to unshackle the Army in its operations here. That, out of a wish to demolish Naik. Mumbai city burned. Naik lost his job a few months later and Pawar made a return as Maharashtra Chief Minister, having been outclassed by hi s rivals at the Centre. (Naik is now back in the Pawar camp.)

Pawar then led the Congress(I) in 1993 to its biggest electoral defeat in Maharashtra, reducing its score to a pathetic 80 seats. The party’s tally could have been marginally higher but Pawar worked hard to defeat Congress(I) candidates who did not belon g to his faction. The Shiv Sena-BJP alliance won 137 seats and formed the government. Pawar had paved the way for the hoisting of the saffron flag over Maharashtra.

PAWAR seems set to play a similar role in 1999. Oddly enough, the Congress(I) did very well in the 1998 Lok Sabha polls - with the Shiv Sena-BJP combine in power, and with Pawar declaring that he was not returning to Maharashtra and would keep to politi cs at the Centre. The Congress(I) got 33 seats and its ally, the Republican Party of India (RPI), four. Before the present crisis in the Congress(I), the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance was in a desperate state. The staunchest supporters of the alliance were not sure that together the two parties could reach double digits in the next Lok Sabha elections. In Mumbai city, a rout of the alliance was on the cards.

All that has changed. Pawar’s has revolt certainly redrawn the pollscape. It could be the saffron alliance that benefits more than his proposed new party, because the votes that his faction wins in each constituency may not bring its candidates victory b ut will end up undermining the Congress(I).

What accounts for Pawar’s seeming aura of invincibility? The tremendous belief in his abilities? Despite his less-than-impressive poll record, the media saw him as a strong contender in the prime ministerial stakes of 1991. That too against the Narasimha Raos, Arjun Singhs and N.D. Tiwaris. How could this be? At the start of 1991, Pawar had never been a member of the Union Cabinet or the Congress(I) Parliamentary Board, which meant he could not seriously be in the running for prime ministership. (Exempt ion from that rule is granted only to the Nehru-Gandhi family.) Yet, significant sections of the press saw him as a front-runner.

Never mind his poll record, there has always been one constituency where Pawar has enjoyed a four-fifths majority: the press, particularly influential reporters and correspondents in Maharashtra. The number of them in his thrall adds up to quite a powerf ul lobby. The affinity is not necessarily ideological. There is a clutch of people in the press, from proprietors to hacks, whose purses have been with Pawar while their hearts have been with the Sangh Parivar. His chief ministerial years have always bee n good ones for journalists seeking flats from the government quota. And that is the least of it. He was and is the Beloved of the Masses of Hungry Newspaper Owners. Also Messiah of the Market. Of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, it could be argued that ne wspaper owners and industrialists feared him and needed him. Pawar, they adored.

Pawar’s years as Chief Minister saw India’s biggest land scams ever. Honest bureaucrats who opposed him were ruthlessly marginalised. Unsavoury dereservation deals went through. He was reputed to be the most resourceful Chief Minister in the country. The re were controversies over a plan to sell off Army cantonment land when Pawar was Defence Minister. Some people believe these cost him the post. But there were always powerful sections in the press to argue his case. His Teflon-coating was regularly poli shed with generous quantities of newsprint.


His ties with the Shiv Sena - as and when it suited him - too have not been seriously explored. Whenever he was sidelined in the Congress(I), Pawar played footsie with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, aiding him in giving hell to the Congress(I) Chief Min ister of the day. There have been times when a gasping Shiv Sena found a new wind with his assistance. Significantly, Bal Thackeray announced the impending Congress(I) split days before the first newspaper here cottoned on to it.

As for the Congress(I), it has simply asked, begged and prayed for it. A party that almost never allows its MLAs in any State to elect their own leader, it has painted itself into a corner, where a member of The Family must be given unquestioning obedien ce and obeisance. One that promotes only sycophants, thus making the emergence of genuine mass leaders almost impossible. A political culture that has nourished and cherished defectors (like Pawar) and defections while undercutting those who actually hav e worked for it. And a political force with the worst economic agenda, one that launched a variant of the "structural adjustment" in Maharashtra long before it happened in the rest of the country.

Pawar himself is very much a product of that culture. He had the option of raising issues openly and squarely within his party’s forum. He chose less straightforward ways, not attending the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting he had himself demanded . Earlier he had proclaimed Sonia Gandhi as his leader and future Prime Minister. Finally, of the many grounds on which he could oppose her, he chose the least honest one. In contrast, a Rajesh Pilot who has all along demanded elections to the party’s to p posts and a more democratic internal structure actually comes out better.

If Pawar now approaches the remnants of the United Front or Third Force, he will have them in a bind. That he is neither with the Congress(I) nor - explicitly - with the Shiv Sena-BJP combine makes it difficult for them to keep him out of their combine. So they could have him in their front during the polls. The problem is: where will he be after the polls?

Why is this important? There has long been a 20 to 25 per cent vote in Maharashtra that favours neither the Congress(I) nor the saffronites. It has been fragmented over the years, with Janata Dal leaders concentrating their fire on rival groups within th eir own party, with the Left in decline, and with the RPI and its nine factions unable to get their act together.

This is the space Pawar now seeks to occupy, besides taking a chunk of the Congress(I) vote with him. Add to this the public anger against the Shiv Sena-BJP Government. In theory, a winning combination could indeed be built around this. The question is w hether Pawar can do it in this election and whether Maharashtra is now ready for the type of formation it rejected in earlier polls. It also depends on what part of the Congress(I) vote he can take with him. It would need to be a very high share of that party’s total for him to convert it into seats.

Immediately, the Shiv Sena-BJP combine’s position in the six Lok Sabha seats in Mumbai appears to have improved. Pawar is likely to ally with the Samajwadi Party and perhaps even the Athavale group of the RPI. The effect of this could be to split Muslim and Dalit votes, which would otherwise uniformly go against the Shiv Sena-BJP front. Consequently, the latter, which was facing decimation, is now a serious contender in far more seats than it was just weeks ago. The Congress(I) which was, with its allie s, seeking upwards of 35 seats, will suffer correspondingly, losing several seats both to the saffron crowd and to Pawar. However, with alliances yet to be struck, the swings and the seats that will be won cannot be predicted in more specific terms.

If Pawar’s new party does not make the kind of impact he hopes for, he is in trouble. If elections to the Maharashtra Assembly are held separately — as Thackeray demands - he could be in bigger trouble if his party does not emerge the frontrunner in the Lok Sabha elections. Keeping his support base intact then would be a problem. So September could bring the elections that make or break Sharad Pawar.

See online : Frontline


Volume 16 - Issue 12, June 05 - 18, 1999

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