DESPITE the many false steps in the past, Sharad Pawar gives the impression of being a man who has learnt no lessons and still does not have much of an idea about choosing the right time and the right place to make the right decision. Conventional wisdom has it that with the elections almost upon us, all national parties would be busy firming up alliances and finetuning their strategies to retain or regain power. But some of the Nationalist Congress Party leaders seem to draw some thrill out of setting the cat among the pigeons.
“ Pawar is fully qualified to become the Prime Minister of India,” a senior NCP leader was quoted as saying the other day. Nobody questions that assertion. After all, this is a country which has had the misfortune of having the likes of HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral occupy the high office. Compared, Pawar is a giant. Yet, mystery surrounds that statement.
What was the need to shift the goalposts just when the game was entering stoppage time? Just a couple of weeks back, as the guest on my TV show Seedhi Baat on Aaj Tak , Pawar told me that Manmohan Singh would continue to lead the UPA into the 15th Lok Sabha elections. He was, in fact, the first senior leader from the coalition to assert that the UPA need not have to look beyond the incumbent. What then did his partymen seek to achieve by unilaterally raising the “ Pawar for PM” demand? Often in the last few months, Pawar has dropped enough hints about taking leave of electoral politics.
The NCP even announced that Supriya Sule, Pawar’s only child, would contest from Baramati, Pawar’s constituency for long. This reinforced the belief that the Grand Maratha was readying to spend the rest of his life looking after the vast vineyards that he owns and the somewhat lesser pluckings from the International Cricket Council, of which he is to take over as President next year.
My guess is that Pawar, who feels absolutely comfortable working with Manmohan, has reasons to suspect the Congress’ commitment to project the genial sardar as its prime ministerial candidate in the impending campaign. Manmohan’s heart condition has only reinforced these suspicions. Who then? There are any number of claimants: Lalu Yadav, Pranab Mukherjee, why Rahul Gandhi himself. When Manmohan went in for heart surgery on Saturday, the government scattered his responsibilities amongst half a dozen cabinet colleagues, yet another indication of the confusion within the party. A Congressman for long, Pawar knows how to milk such confusion for his own benefit.
Apart from numerous Congress leaders who may choose to back him over so many others from their own party, he is also banking on the excellent rapport that he has with several regional chieftains — N Chandrababu Naidu, Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, Prafulla Mahanta, to name just a few. When push comes to shove, they will back him. It is a strategy that may well pay off.
But a Congress friend tells me that reports about the “ Pawar for PM” demand setting off alarm bells in the Congress are exaggerated and that the NCP strategy was aimed at nothing more than extracting a few more seats for the party which currently has just 11 members. He could be proved wrong. My guess is that Pawar will get the seats he seeks from the coalition. I won’t be surprised if his political skills still carry the day.