NCP: 'We oppose dynasties, er.., love them'

As I see it

 That ancient political truism has been driven home this week yet again as the Nationalist Congress Party ‘celebrated’ its 10th anniversary. Only days before the celebration, one of its senior leaders and MP, Padamsinh Patil was arrested for murder, a grim reminder of the creeping criminalisation of Maharashtra’s political elite. And just a fortnight ago, one of its founders, P A Sangma, had apologised to Sonia Gandhi for raising the foreign origins issue. If ever there was a prize for a political somersault, then this was a gold medal winning effort.

Ah, Mr Sangma! A decade ago, the ever-smiling former Lok Sabha Speaker from Meghalaya had been the driving force behind the anti-Sonia campaign, using every forum to target the Congress chief. Yet, at the ministerial swearing in of the UPA government, the animosities seemed to be a forgotten chapter. As Sonia Gandhi applauded Agatha Sangma being sworn in as the youngest member of the Manmohan Singh government, a beaming father couldn’t resist sharing the joyous moment. What price the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty or foreign origins when you have the opportunity to start your own dynasty in the Garo hills?

Which is perhaps a question that could just as easily be posed to Sharad Pawar in the context of Maharashtra. With a talented daughter now firmly ensconced as the MP from the pocket borough of Baramati, with an ambitious nephew who runs his own parallel empire in Pune, Pawar has slowly established his family raj in the state. Now, the NCP claims it wasn’t an anti-dynasty party, but only against the idea of a person of ‘foreign origins’ becoming the prime minister. But the foreign origin issue was settled five years ago when Sonia Gandhi listened to her ‘inner voice’ and chose not to become the prime minister. Why then should the NCP still exist as a political party?

The question is significant because it is being raised just months ahead of the crucial Maharashtra Assembly elections later this year. It has gathered added momentum because a section of the Congress leadership, bolstered by their success in the Lok Sabha elections, is now advocating a ‘go it alone’ policy in every state. Maharashtra though, is not quite Bihar, or even UP.

The RJD and the Samajwadi Party were built on a streak of anti-Congressism, so a parting of ways was hardly surprising. The NCP, by contrast, is a party which has emerged from the womb of the Congress. The two parties are competing for an almost identical vote base, which is why an alliance break-up could well result in a vote split and almost certain election defeat.

Why not a merger

But for the very reason that the NCP and the Congress cannot sever their alliance, they must consider the proposal for a merger. When asked this question last week, Pawar made it clear that there was no question of disbanding the NCP and that the party’s identity was intact. Asked what that identity was, Pawar had replied that the NCP stood for ‘democratic decentralisation’.

On the face of it, that is a powerful reason to maintain an independent identity. Why should any self-respecting, powerful regional boss spend days doing the rounds of the Delhi durbar when he can just as easily run his own private fiefdom in his home state? In the prevailing political arrangement, a party with even a handful of MPs can demand, and get, sufficient ministries.

With just nine MPs, but three ministers, the NCP has a pretty decent strike rate. As an independent party, it can bargain with the Congress leadership for a greater share in the Maharashtra and Central pie. As part of the Congress, it would have to be satisfied with the crumbs that are thrown in its direction.

The NCP’s great failure has been its inability to be seen as a pan-Maharashtra party. Instead, it’s been reduced to a sub-regional party, with limited appeal outside its original sugar co-operative heartland of western Maharashtra.

Moreover, a powerful section of its local leadership has now openly advocated for reservations for Marathas, scarcely the recipe for creating a progressive, inclusive society. The few non-Maratha leaders within the party hierarchy have either been marginalised or are increasingly restive at being excluded from the decision-making apparatus.

Caught in the midst of this inner-party turmoil is a leader who for three decades now has been the eternal prime minister in waiting. A pragmatic politician, Pawar perhaps is aware of his own limitations, and realises that at the age of  69, his moment may have gone. Which is why he has one eye on his ICC presidentship, the World Cup of 2011, and a possible retirement to his farm.

In a sense, it is only appropriate that the NCP’s symbol is a clock. It’s a daily reminder to its party leadership of the need to turn the clock back and return to the party of their origin.

(The writer is Editor-in-Chief, IBN Network)

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