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

India Today - - COVER STORY - By Priya Sahgal and Ki­ran Tare

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.

MAN­DAR DEO­DAR/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com



CHANDRADEEP TI­WARI/ www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com



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