Wanting more – Pawar’s Oliver Twist moment

When Sharad Pawar split the Congress in 1999, he had hoped that the whole of the party will rally behind him and that Sonia Gandhi will be just left with herself and a handful of her close supporters.

That did not happen. Instead, Pawar had to eat crow and come crawling to the Congress for an alliance in 2004, hoping that getting the party on his side would help the Nationalist Congress Party grow by leaps and bounds. That did not happen either.

So, today, more than a dozen years after he formed the NCP, for the first time, he seems to have drawn a reality check – that his is just a `small’ party that has no respect and that his party needs to grow.

The problem for Pawar is that hs party cannot grow except at the expense of the Congress. He needs the Congress leaders to concede his every demand and to play a secondary role to his own party. But that, too, is unlikely to happen.

Pawar had believed that the Shiv Sena might be decimated at the municipal elections earlier this year and the next battle in Maharashtra would then happen between the Congress and the NCP. But when that did not happen either, he has been left with no choice but to take a leaf out of Oliver Twist and ask for more – and more. And some more again from the Congress.

His tantrum this week, then, is about all these things – becoming Number Two in the Manmohan Singh cabinet, perhaps getting a better ministry than just agriculture, getting his way in Maharashtra which chief minister Prithviraj Chavan has been blocking ever since taking over in 2010 and, most importantly, reining in all of those in his own party who are looking towards greener pastures by letting them know in no uncertain terms that he and he alone calls the shots in this alliance.

I really feel sorry for this regional chieftain who is reduced to such brinkmanship – all who know Pawar, including those in the Congress, are well aware of the fact that he will not pull out of the UPA alliance. He cannot afford to. That comes as a big disappointment to Congressmen in his own home state of Maharashtra, though for long there has been a clamour within the state Congress that they should get rid of their alliance with the NCP and go it alone at the Assembly polls, just to test the waters. A senior Congressman told me, “At best we will lose one election. With the contradictions within the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party, we will come back again with a bang at the elections after that. But three to five years out of power will completely destroy the NCP. And that will be a good thing for us.’’

However, every time they have got their hopes up that Pawar’s brinkmanship will lead to a split, it has not happened. It is Pawar who has then ceded ground to the Congress. Like just before the 2009 Lok Sabha elections when former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh was calling for going into `friendly fights’ with the NCP – meaning, they went it alone but did not attack each other viciously during the campaign. Pawar then won Sonia Gandhi’s heart by suggesting the naming of the Bandra-Worli sea link after former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. He knew she would not be able to oppose an alliance with the NCP after that. He tried the same trick again during the October 2009 assembly polls, but when the Congress did not concede he retreated, again, by settling for fewer seats than he would have wished for.

One Congress worker then had told me, “What is it that we must do to persuade Pawar to break off his alliance with us? Because, no matter what we say, he can always persuade our party leaders to maintain ties with the NCP.’’

I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing the Congress can do to push Pawar over the edge. Because Pawar’s survival instincts are very sharp and nothing is more important to him than winning elections and staying in power. A little bit of personal pique and having to retreat from stated positions is no big deal in the pursuit of this larger interest,

So I am not convinced now that Pawar, despite his letter to Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is even willing to give up his trappings of Pawar. I recall the time when he was jut an ordinary MP – and had to always hitch a ride with one or the other of his ministers in the Maharashtra government who had cars with red beacon lights at their disposal. It made him feel smaller than them and rendered him utterly insecure to be seen as dependent upon his supporters. That is why when he was offered a job as chairperson of the National Disaster Management Commission by then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee he jumped upon that opportunity without losing a minute more than was requited. Many people presumed that he was switching sides but I was convinced that all that he was interested in at the time was drawing level with others in his party who had similar trappings of office.

A Pawar out of, well, power is no Pawar at all. That is perhaps why the Congress, though taken by surprise at the timing of his protest and his tantrum per se, is not really worried bout the resolution of the problem.

Pawar is right: he has been the stablest of the Congress’s allies (though for reasons of his own) and he is unlikely to put the UPA at peril. But what, the heck! He is, I am sure, entitled to a tantrum or two along the way. The Congress, I am sure, will not be unwilling to grant him one little peeve. Though, clearly, not very much more than that!

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