Popping the inflated balloon

Sharad Pawar is capable of a lot of things but lucidity and articulation in the English language is not one of them.

So I burst out laughing when I came across his latest statement that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who is hell bent upon anointing himself as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, is `like an inflated balloon which will burst soon.’’

The more inflated it gets, the sooner it pops, he added for better measure. Actually I thought nobody could have put it better – and perhaps that is because no one can know better than Pawar how soon an inflated balloon can burst.

Pawar himself was like an inflated balloon soon after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi when he thought there was now no one better than him in the Congress for the job of Prime Minister.

I can see the parallels with Modi. P V Narasimha Rao was then the Congress working president and much as is happening now with LK Advani, who is being driven out of Gujarat to contest the next polls from Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, Pawar had become the stumbling block in Rao’s way in 1991.

But Pawar was by far cleverer and more subtle. Rajiv had wanted to give the Lok Sabha ticket from Ramntek to Rao and had asked then Congress general secretary Janardhan Poojary to make sure Pawar would not oppose the move.

Pawar agreed but when the tickets were being discussed at the AICC meeting, Pawar told Rajiv “You can win either Ramtek or Maharashtra, not both.”

Meaning if he were asked to campaign for Rao, he would not be able to focus on other Lok Sabha seats, as Rao’s victory was an impossible task. Rajiv was shocked and upset but Rao bowed out gracefully to save everybody the embarrassment of pleading with Pawar.

He was in Nagpur when Rajiv was assassinated. Pawar was in Pune. Rao, who had just recovered from a cardiac surgery, had to be rushed to hospital after hearing the news but he recovered soon enough to call Pawar, then chief minister of Maharashtra, to pick him up from Nagpur en route to New Delhi for Rajiv’s funeral.

Pawar would not say an outright no but made excuses of not having enough fuel to land the aircraft in Nagpur when he would have had to fly over the city anyway.

He also made some mumblings about it being against the rules for anybody but a chief minister to use the state aircraft. Rao understood – and boarded a commercial flight and got there on time anyway.

But Pawar, as he put down the phone after talking to Rao, I am told, made a fatal mistake. He dismissed Rao contemptuously as “Toh matara!” and asked the people in that room in the state guest house, “Why does he now need to impress anybody? He should retire and take sanyas.”

Much like Advani who has put up a battle now against Modi, Rao did not give up the fight and when he won through, one of those men inside that guest house reported to the new Prime Minister exactly what had transpired at Pawar’s end of the conversation.

Rao, who spoke excellent Marathi, I am told, said little but “Asaa! Toh mala matara mhantoh (Oh! Hhe calls me an old man?”) Then he let it go with a shrug and an expressionless, “Baghu’ or `We shall see.”

I noticed that after that Rao made sure Pawar’s career declined. He was outmaneuvered into going from defence minister to chief minister (or he would have been prime minister sooner).

He also went from being leader of the opposition to just an ordinary MP and then had to split the Congress for survival. He had got an inflated ego again in 1998 when the Congress swept elections in Maharashtra, the 40-odd seats from the state making the crucial difference between a two and a three figure tally in the Lok Sabha.

Sonia Gandhi gave him the full credit but he mistakenly believed that myth. At the next elections, he contested as the NCP president, his party got only six seats from Maharashtra and the NCP was behind both the Congress and the Shiv Sena who came in first and second respectively in terms of numbers at the 1999 assembly elections.

The intervening years, I would say, has been a lesson in humility for the man who would still be Prime Minister but is now going about it slowly, secretively and in a very very careful and clever fashion.

Pawar knows by now that you cannot win out of the mainstream and that he has to contest polls in alliance with the Congress or he could be entirely decimated. His best hope is at the head of a third front government supported by the Congress and he seems to be working shrewdly in that direction and so must now pin-prick Narendra Modi to bring him down to earth.

Personally, I think Modi is a more inflated balloon than Pawar ever was and I have reason to believe he is peaking too early in the game — and one has to look to Nagpur for the reason.

Much as people are dismissing Advani as an old fool who cannot let go of his ambition to become Prime Minister, I actually think of him as an old fox who might still, well, outfox Modi closer to the elections than most Modi supporters tend to believe.

I also believe that all three men are destined never to be Prime Minister but, between the three, I would put my money on Sharad Pawar.

Only look at the mess that of cricket administration in India and one wonders why Pawar, who started that mess, is the only one who is in the clean today.

The real player here is Sharad Pawar and he is capable of outfoxing all the foxes. He will make sure that this time round he does not go up like an inflated balloon himself again. This is his last chance, as much as it is Advani’s and, of course, Narendra Modi’s. May the best man win.

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