A MONTH ago, when in the wake of the 2G spectrum scandal, rumours swirled about the possible axing of A. Raja. A Congress spokesperson sa id, “ It is the Prime Minister’s prerogative to decide who stays in his cabinet and who stays out.” That Raja is still in office says much not only about the limited prerogative of the incumbent PM but also of the limited powers that the Congress enjoys in the government that it heads.
Sharad Pawar has been around so long that he can give a few lessons in the art of politics to all in the UPA, barring perhaps Pranab Mukherjee. Like the Spaniards and Germans on a grass pitch, the Maratha is the master of counter attack in the field of politics. When the pressure mounts, he switches strategy, marshals his resources and blunts his opponent’s attack before launching a counter offensive that changes the course of the game.
For the past few months, both he and his NCP colleague Praful Patel have been under the scanner for their roles in the IPL. Pawar has been particularly targeted by the Congress for the uncontrolled inflation which the party believes will cost it dearly.
When the Left and the Right joined hands to bring the country to a halt last Monday to protest price rise, Pawar was in Singapore for his coronation as chief of cricket’s world body, the ICC. No sooner had he landed in New Delhi, he drove to the Prime Minister’s house and requested that some of the workload be taken off him. You can’t but sympathise with him. At 70, even a Grand Maratha cannot be expected to carry multiple burdens. And Pawar carries so many: minister of agriculture, food and civil supplies, consumer affairs and public distribution.
It’s a well- calibrated strategy, the kind that has served him well for the nearly 40 years he spent in public life. It has put the Congress on the defensive. Pawar wants his workload to be lightened, but is adamant about not yielding agriculture. That leaves Manmohan with the limited option of handing food and civil supplies and public distribution to someone else.
The question is: with inflation running in double digits, who would want to hold the hot potato? The real motive behind Pawar’s request was to force the Prime Minister to effect a cabinet reshuffle, something he knows the Congress is not ready for. At 77, this is the largest ever cabinet in independent India, with 58 from the Congress alone and Manmohan is not inclined to add to it.
Besides, he never tinkered with portfolios in UPA 1, so it would be out of character to expect him to do so within fourteen months of UPA 2. Within A. Raja the Congress, there is considerable anger at the inefficiency and the many charges of corruption hurled at alliance ministers, particularly from the DMK and the NCP.
While Pawar constantly revises strategy to counter the Congress, the DMK is typically brazen and rubbishes demands for Raja’s ouster saying that it can happen only if he is found guilty by the courts in the 2G spectrum allocation case. With the Prime Minister looking on like a helpless spectator, senior Congress leaders are putting pressure on Sonia Gandhi to put the house in order. The internal bickerings in the UPA would have been fodder for the media if Kashmir had not flared up and hogged the headlines. Still the Congress strategists continue to ply their trade, with motivated leaks of an impending reshuffle and TV channels predicting, like Paul the Octopus, the names of new ministers.
A mid- term reshuffle is a normal course correction strategy that governments routinely undertake to repair their battered image. But by taking the initiative for a reshuffle, Pawar has effectively stalled one. It’s not the first time he has resorted to such chicanery. After 26/ 11, when Vilasrao Deshmukh refused to resign as Maharashtra CM and Union home minister Shivraj Patil continued to spend more time in front of the mirror than looking at files, Pawar got R. R. Patil of the NCP, the deputy CM and home minister to step down owning moral responsibility.
Both Deshmukh and Shivraj saw the writing on the wall and quit. And now comes the news that the NCP will contest next year’s assembly polls in Kerala in alliance with the Marxists. No one knows the black arts of the political trade more than Pawar.
The NCP may have only nine MPs in the Lok Sabha, but Pawar will continue to strut around as if he has 90.