The NCP supremo may have agreed to a ceasefire but the UPA Government is feeling the heat from aggrieved allies just when it is all set for a leadership transition
The war- scarred Grand Maratha chose to strike at UPA’S most vulnerable moment. On the evening of July 19, a sulking Sharad Pawar turned the sweltering heat in the Capital a notch higher with a high- profile tantrum. The Nationalist Congress Party ( NCP) threatened to withdraw its ministers from the UPA Government in Delhi and the Congress- led government in Maharashtra, claiming that it had been humiliated by the arrogant Congress. The party said it wanted respect. Less than 48 hours later, another disgruntled ally, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, announced that the Trinamool Congress would not be aligning with the Congress in Bengal. “In Delhi, we are part of the alliance as long as we are given respect,” she warned, “but in Bengal, we will go it alone.”
On July 22, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav sent a letter to the PMO “urging” the Prime Minister “not to open up the retail trade to FDI any further”. The letter was also signed by CPI( M) chief Prakash Karat, CPI’s Sudhakar Reddy and JD( S)’ s Danish Ali. The Congress, which had always regarded Mulayam’s 22 MPs as a buffer to Banerjee, got a rude shock. Anand Sharma, the commerce minister, who had been preening all over television cameras stating that there was
a “strong consensus” in favour of FDI in retail, lost his smirk. The brief appearance of confidence after the Congress’s effective crisis management during the presidential election suddenly seemed punctured.
The allies are back in the business of baiting the Government they are a part of, and all the hinges on which the UPA majority rests are becoming unhinged again. Pawar’s revolt was the most unexpected. His nature is not mercurial. His nine MPs in Delhi may not be vital but his MLAs are crucial to the alliance in one of India’s richest states, Maharashtra. He has dealt with Congress- NCP conflicts and tensions with maturity. Even when the business interests of close associates in Lavasa were hurt, Pawar maintained a studied silence. Where other allies have proved demanding, he has offered support— from the nuclear deal to FDI in retail to getting the Shiv Sena’s support for UPA’s presidential candidate. Perhaps that is why the Congress has started taking him for granted. Yet, finally, even he had enough of being bullied by Congress.
Being a shrewd politician, Pawar chose his moves well. He timed his revolt as soon as Pranab Mukherjee, the Congress party’s chief troubleshooter, got elected to Rashtrapati Bhavan. After Mukherjee, Pawar was the most senior member of the Cabinet. Yet, Manmohan Singh chose Defence Minister A. K. Antony to replace Mukherjee as his No. 2. This hurt the three- time former Maharashtra chief minister, yet Pawar did not make this the core issue of his grievance. Instead, he demanded better coordination between the Congress and the allies, both at the Centre and in the NCP- Congress government in Maharashtra.
The patch- up on July 24 was a resolution, but not quite a solution. After an hour- long meeting between Manmohan, Sonia Gandhi, Pawar and the NCP’s Praful Patel at 7 Race Course Road, it was decided that the UPA Government would set up “an effective coordination mechanism with the allies very soon”. According to Patel, this panel would be headed by Sonia and would meet once a month to discuss policy and other issues. NCP was also assured that the co-
ordination committee in Maharashtra would meet more frequently. It has not met for three years.
There is a pattern in Pawar’s politics. It was after Indira Gandhi’s humiliating defeat in 1977 that he broke away from the Congress in 1978. He returned in 1986. Later in June 1999, he once again left the Congress to form NCP. This was three months before the 1999 general elections and at a time when Sonia had barely firmed her hold over the party. Pawar used Sonia’s foreign origin as an excuse to split the Congress. He was hoping that in the event of a hung Parliament, he could emerge as a prime ministerial candidate. This did not happen as the NDA alliance came back to power in October.
With Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi tipped to join the Cabinet later this year, Sonia is keen to ensure a soft landing for her reluctant son. For this, she needs Rahul to be accepted by allies. “Pawar has no problem sitting with Rahul in the Cabinet, but whether he will be part of a Cabinet that has Rahul as prime minister is another matter,” says an NCP MP, pointing out that even Mukherjee had once stated that he would not be part of Rahul’s Cabinet.
Pawar has never been a favourite of 10 Janpath. Sonia has not forgiven him for using her foreign origins as an issue to split the Congress. When she met Pawar on July 20, it was probably the second time during UPA 2 that he visited 10 Janpath. Usually, it is Patel who is NCP’s ambassador to 10 Janpath while Pawar deals with the Prime Minister. “The two Congress leaders whom Pawar finds it hard to say no to are Pranab Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh,” says the NCP MP.
Ever since Mukherjee vacated the No. 2 slot, Pawar had been fuming in silence. The NCP chief was hoping he would be accorded the chair next to Manmohan. But at a Cabinet meeting on July 12, Antony got the honour. Antony used to work under Pawar when both were in the Congress ( S). The Congress claims it could hardly give the No. 2 post to an ally.
NCP did not hide its displeasure but it took seven days for the Prime Minister to realise that something was seriously wrong, when on the evening of July 19, his aides informed him that both NCP ministers, Pawar and Patel, had not shown up for the Cabinet meeting although both were in town that day. Manmohan told the cabinet secretary to inform the rest of the Cabinet that he would be delayed and dialled Pawar.
Later that evening, Pawar drove to Race Course Road and handed Manmohan a letter. In it he simply stated that since NCP was a small party, it was not given much stature or respect within UPA and so he would like to devote his time to party work. “This was an offer to resign from the Cabinet,” said an NCP leader. The next morning, Pawar met Sonia. He told her that the Congress was not running an inclusive government and cited the example of NDA, which had both a chairperson and a convener. While a BJP leader was the chairman ( L. K. Advani), the post of convener was held by an ally ( Sharad Yadav). Pawar also pointed out that ever since the Left walked out of UPA 1, there had been no co- ordination committee. The NCP source added that “Sonia heard this patiently and said that she will try to rectify the situation. She also said that a difference of opinion would only weaken the Government.”
Ever since he took office, Prithviraj Chavan has been making life miserable for NCP. This has hurt Sharad Pawar, for Maharashtra is the NCP’S sole bastion.
( FROM LEFT) NCP’S TRIPATHI, PATEL AND TARIQ ANWAR IN DELHI ON JULY24
PRITHVIRAJ CHAVAN WITH HIS DEPUTY, AJIT PAWAR