‘A bunch of unfulfilled souls’

Sharad Pawar is wont to describe the Congress party thus: it is like a zamindar of yore. When he used to sit on his terrace with a hookah he had the satisfaction of knowing that all that met his eye and far beyond belonged to him. Now all that belongs to him is limited to his compound wall which he can cover in three and a half steps from his verandah. Yet he sits on his terrace with a hookah and dreams of all that meets his eye and beyond belonging to him – once upon a time.

I always thought that description was very apt but somehow Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra is itself limited to just a compound wall (Western Maharashtra) and feels the need to poach from the Congress’s increasingly declining resources.

Having netted a big fish in the form of the Shiv Sena’s lone MP from the Bombay-Thane region, Anand Paranjpe, the NCP got pretty ambitious and decided to mop up some discontents from the Congress. But despite a lot of temptations on offer, somehow the NCP has not been able to strike hard against it ally in government.

Now Congress leaders are simply mad at the NCP. So I was not surprised when former chief minister Vilasrao deshmukh, currently union minister for science and technology, recently described the NCP as a grouping of a bunch of “unfulfilled souls’’ (asantusht aatma) drawn from the Congress. Deshmukh has a way with words and when I got to think about it, I realised it could not have been put better – for everyone from Pawar to his nephew Ajit and most other leaders in the NCP are really a bunch of disgruntled Congressmen who did not get enough out of the Congress and thought they would make it on their own.

Unfortunately for Pawar, while he expected to decimate the Congress when he split the party in 1999, it is the Congress which still keeps him in power – unlike even Mamata Banerjee, he has been unable to form a government on his own in Maharashtra. And he, perhaps, never will.

But that does not stop the NCP from trying. This time, though, the party might have gone a bit far – although they have still not succeeded in engineering spectacular defections from the Congress, the small fry they have netted has now got the Congress’s back up and achieved the rare event of bringing enemies within the Congress (or rather rivals for the job of chief minister) together on one platform. Apart from Deshmukh, revenue minister Narayan Rane and minister for forests Patangrao Kadam have gone on the offensive against the NCP, promising a ‘vastraharan’ (stripping) of the NCP (Rane) and calling the party all sorts of unsavoury names (Kadam). But the best offensive yet has been from Deshmukh who was, in an earlier avatar, credited with cutting the NCP down to size and offering both Pawar and his own leaders a reality check on the actual powers of the NCP.

Pawar knows the Congress and its temptations well enough and so had once succeeded in taking the party for a right royal ride during the 2004 elections – he not only managed to diddle the Congress out of its due share of seats but also quickly snapped up those independents who had won with Congress support on the Congress quota at those elections. Thus the NCP artificially got its numbers up in the Maharashtra Assembly and it was only the hopeless prospect of an internecine war on his hands in the choice of a chief minister that compelled Pawar to concede the chief minister’s office to the Congress.

Deshmukh was ready for Pawar in 2009: he quoted figures to prove how the NCP had been steadily trailing the Congress at all elections between 2004 and 2009 and knocked the NCP’s demands down substantially – for the NCP greatly feared a breakup with the Congress, which would have meant it got reduced to single digits (it still did) in the Lok sabha and not very much better in the Assembly either.

However, temptation is what drives the Congress into the NCP’s arms again and again and this time round the prospect of getting their own mayor in Bombay is what compelled some leaders to tie up with the NCP for the civic elections – though once again it is the NCP which needs the Congress more. But this time that need is not simply just to win elections – it is more to decimate the Congress, so that at the next Assembly elections they can be assured of the office of the chief minister.

Once again, it is only Deshmukh who has spotted the danger and come up with an apt description of the NCP’s ambitions – flying high on borrowed gas with a bunch of elements not quite wanted by the Congress.

However, it is the mind games that the NCP plays with the Congress that is more dangerous: if it succeeds in convincing the Congress that it is on the downslide, the party is quite incapable of recognising that it is actually on a strong wicket and equally capable of giving away the advantage to the NCP.

Pawar was always a master at these mind games. But it is the new-found ability of Congress leaders to return the compliment that is interesting and delightful to watch.

May the best man win.

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