MAHARASHTRA: PAWAR ON
The NCP supremo rallies opposition leaders and takes up the farmers’ cause in a bid to make a comeback in state politics
When NCP chief Sharad Pawar stood beside others, including Sharad Yadav, Omar Abdullah, D. Raja and Hardik Patel at the ‘Samvidhan Bachao’ rally this Republic Day, many saw it as a gesture that did not reflect his iconic stature. Earlier, on December 12, when Pawar, unexpectedly, joined a protest march demanding relief for the state’s beleaguered farmers, it was his first major political outing in the state in years. All signals that the Maharashtra strongman is looking to make a political comeback in his state.
Addressing farmers at the protest march in December, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) supremo had urged them not to pay power bills till they received the full loan waiver promised by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. On January 2, a day after the caste violence in Maharashtra’s Koregaon Bhima, Pawar blamed ‘Hindutva forces’ for the trouble; on February 22, in a televised conversation with Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray, he advocated reservations based on economic status.
But Pawar soon realised his suggestion could irk the Marathas, who comprise 70 per cent of the farming community. He quickly changed his stance to support quotas for farmers of all castes. The former chief minister and Union minister dismissed suggestions that his presence at the January 26 rally was a climbdown. “Elders like me decided to give our blessings to their (younger leaders’) efforts,” he said.
Some analysts say Pawar’s unusual engagement in Maha-
rashtra politics after years of hibernation could well be catalysing the agrarian unrest against the Fadnavis government. They believe that with Congress leaders Prithviraj Chavan and Ashok Chavan lacking any mass connect and NCP leaders such as Ajit Pawar and Sunil Tatkare facing corruption charges, Pawar is looking to fill the vacuum. Political analyst Hemant Desai says Pawar’s re-entry has built the mood against the BJP regime.
The NCP chief, who met Congress president Rahul Gandhi twice in past weeks, has made it clear that, despite widespread speculation to the contrary, the party would stand by the more ‘accommodating’ Congress and spurn the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. He denied being under pressure on account of the ongoing probe against nephew Ajit Pawar or Tatkare in the Rs 26,000 crore irrigation scam in Maharashtra.
But senior state government sources say a committee set up to examine the alleged scam, involving 12 irrigation projects in the Konkan region, has pointed fingers at Ajit Pawar. While state irrigation minister Girish Mahajan hasn’t divulged details, BJP national president Amit Shah issued a warning during his Mumbai visit on April 6. “Wait for the action. The state government still has one year to complete in its tenure,” Shah said.
On Pawar’s political move, his close aide and NCP legislator Hemant Takle says, “Someone had to take on the government. Pawar has been doing that for six months. He is not working to get political space.”
Analysts believe the expected division of the 35 per cent Maratha vote base largely between the Congress and the NCP will help the BJP. In such a scenario, Pawar is looking to bank the 11 per cent Dalit votes polarised by Dalit leader Prakash Ambedkar, who heads the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh. There is even talk of his backroom deal with the NCP.
NCP insiders say Pawar is also backing Raj Thackeray to weaken the BJP in Pune, Thane, Nashik and Mumbai. He is, perhaps cleverly, echoing Thackeray’s line of attack: that Narendra Modi is pushing his home state’s interests, against those of Maharashtra. However, what could be a damper for Pawar’s ambitions are the corruption allegations against his own party leaders—including nephew Ajit Pawar. This was an issue that cost the NCP dearly in the 2014 elections when it was reduced to a historic low in the state assembly.
NCP INSIDERS SAY PAWAR IS BACKING THE MNS AGAINST THE BJP IN PUNE, NASHIK, MUMBAI
JOINING FORCES Pawar with Sharad Yadav, Omar Abdullah, Sanjay Nirupam, Hardik Patel and others at the Samvidhan Bachao rally in Mumbai