Puppets on a string

Bal Thackeray’s maverick ways have always led both his friends and rivals to underestimate him politically. But if they at all needed evidence for how finely he tunes his strategies, they only have to look at how, once again, for no rhyme or obvious reason, he has outwitted his ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party, over his support to Pranab Mukherjee, the UPA’s presidential candidate, as well as kept his own base intact with his voters.

For a couple of days after his public endorsement of Mukherjee, he has now railed against Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s call for a secular prime minister with his own – for a Hindutvavadi one. And by no means is that Hindutvavadi prime minister of his Narendra Modi – he perhaps does not even have a name or face for the job. All Thackeray wishes to do is reassert his right-of-centre position while killing another bird with the same stone. For, much as he hates Modi for attempting to usurp his own fondly self-proclaimed position as the Hindu Hriday samrat (emperor of Hindu hearts), he is also putting Kumar in his place for all his past remarks against the Shiv Sena’s anti-Bihari/anti-Uttar Bharatiya policies of recent years. So he keeps his Marathi Manoos base alive as well as extracting from the Congress a promise for his support, which perhaps the Congress was only too happy to make.

The one fear that now drives the Shiv Sena supremo is that his bete noire, Narayan Rane, might one day end up as chief minister of Maharshtra. And for all that the Congress and the Shiv Sena have been at loggerheads over the years, it is also true that they have also been dealing with each other over issues convenient to both – the Sena could never have got to where it is today, without some covert and at times overt support to Thackeray by various Congress party stalwarts in Maharashtra.

But Thackeray can neve expect similar accommodation from Rane, who – as he loves to state — he kicked out of his party for his troublesome ways (though Rane tells it differently – that he quit the Sena on his own, driven up the wall by the younger leadership’s allegedly corrupt ways). Last time, Pratibha Patil’s candidature for Rashtrapati Bhavan had offered a convenient cover to Thackeray to enforce the same deal with the Congress for his support to the UPA candidate – that Patil was the first Maharashtrian to be nominated to Rashtrapati Bhavan and so she deserved the Sena’s support.

This time there is really no explanation why he should break ranks with the BJP, so he attempted to project the NDA as an alliance in disarray who could not even come up with the name of a credible candidate. There was really no tearing hyurry to endorse Mukherjee; he could easily have waited a day or two like everybody else for things to fall into place. But, even though now they have got their act together, it is unlikely that the BJP will be able to persuade the Sena to vote for Purno Sangma, who has been declared as their candidate for the job. Thackeray was always the cat with nine lives and his survival instincts are now at their best: he has borrowed from the Congress’s book to describe Sangma as a `borrowed’ candidate and reiterated he will stick with Mukherjee, no matter what.

Amid reports that Sharad Pawar might have sealed the deal between Thackeray and the UPA, it is easy to see how the arrangement benefits all: almost everybody in the Congress hates Rane for his usurping ways and they do not wish to see him become Chief Minister – I am told that there is even a report sent to Congress president Sonia Gandhi that making Rane CM at any point would sound the Congress’s death knell, for this former Shiv Sainik does not exactly have a Gandhian reputation and is a law unto himself. Rane’s aggression has also proved detrimental to the interests of Pawar and his NCP in the past years, so the Maratha warlord would only have been too happy to quickly seal the deal. I am sure the promises will be kept by all sides.

But while Thackeray might be looking out for his basic survival, believe Sharad Pawar hs a larger game plan. It is rather difficult to believe in his rather tame reaction to Sangma’s rebellion – under other circumstances, Pawar has been known to destroy such challengers to his authority.

I have always suspected that Sangma was deliberately put up by Pawar with 2014 in mind. For, the two chief ministers who first forwarded his candidature for the presidential elections – Naveen Patnaik an J Jayalalitha – are considered rather close to Pawar; they also had alliances with the NCP at the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. That was deliberate strategy by Pawar who was misled into thinking that the UPA would be voted out of power in 2009. He is sure they will be in 2014 and so the BJD and the AIADMK are his insurance for the future – in his bid to become Prime Minister at he head of a Third Front alliance. So is the BJP – for Pawar knows that Congress president Sonia Gandhi ahs already decided that in case of reduced numbers, her party will not support a Third Front government but will allow the mismatch between the BJP and other regional parties to mess it up in such certain fashion that the voters are left with no alternative but the Congress at the consequent/subsequent elections.

Even six months in power, like Charan Singh or Chandrashekhar, would be enough for a man who, even today, has a desperate need to go down in history s India’s prime minister, however short-lived that tenure may be or however fractious his alliance –h believes the can keep them all stitched together by the sheer force of power. I wonder, then, how not many people have spotted these brilliant moves by this master puppeteer.

Pawar keeps his goodwill with the Congress by seeming to meekly vote for Sonia Gandhi’s candidate for president; at the same time he builds bridges with the BJP by sending Sangma their way (while also weakening the saffron party, in case of a future bid, by showing it up as bankrupt of suitable leaders and candidates).

Both the Congress and the BJP, I believe, are yet innocent of the ways of this very astute politician and, even if they lose nothing, there are no gains for either national party from all this jostling for the top job in this country. But whichever way the presidential stakes go, Sharad Pawar would be sitting pretty, a winner all the way through. Bal Thackeray might be the only one able to measure his gains but even he, as all other players, including Patnaik and Jayalalithaa, are just puppets on Pawar’s strings — and Pawar is the grandmaster of them all!

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