Pawar Play: Maratha strongman could be dark horse

 Sharad Pawar. PTI file photo

Twenty years ago, on April 17, 1999, to be precise, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the confidence motion in the Lok Sabha by just one vote, Sharad Pawar was Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. When Sonia Gandhi, who had become Congress president but was not yet an MP (she became one in October that year) met President KR Narayanan and claimed that she enjoyed the support of 272 MPs and was ready to form the government, Pawar had assumed that she would name him as the prime ministerial nominee. After all, he was Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and, as per the Westminster model, the natural claimant to the top executive post. It did not turn out that way.

In fact, 1999 was the second time that Pawar thought he was close to becoming prime minister but had felt cheated out of it. The first time was in June 1991, in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Two months later, in June 1999, he dumped the Congress citing Sonia’s foreign origin and formed the Nationalist Congress Party.

Having won 14 consecutive elections (including Assembly and Lok Sabha polls) since 1967, Sharad Govindrao Pawar, 78, still nurses the dream to be India’s PM. But despite being an astute politician and a seasoned player who has served as Maharashtra chief minister as well as Union agriculture and defence minister, Pawar’s handicap is that he heads an outfit whose presence is largely limited to Maharashtra.

If the May 23 verdict throws up a fractured verdict, Pawar will be looking at his third, and final, chance to be prime minister. He knows it. Which is why, not only has he been saying that “Modi cannot become prime minister again”, he has also worked towards bringing the opposition parties together, even helping Congress patch up relations with some of them on the way to building a grand coalition. That coalition did not fructify before elections, but that could well help the Maratha strongman’s case post-results.   Deccan Herald spoke to a wide range of politicians and political observers in Delhi, Kolkata, Bihar, UP and other areas of the Hindi heartland to gauge the numbers and mood of different parties. Though in public top BJP functionaries reiterate that Modi is coming back to power (with a bigger mandate than in 2014, to boot), in private, they concede that the NDA may not cross 210-220 seats.

“By the time, the seventh phase of election is over, BJP may be restricted to 170-180 as the wind has changed dramatically in the last three phases of polling (held in May),” conceded one senior BJP leader.

Requesting not to be quoted, another saffron camp veteran said that since the voters are silent, it is difficult to gauge their mind. “Under such circumstances, either the BJP will cross the 300 mark on its own. Or, if the voters are genuinely angry, but silent, then we may witness a 1996-type result, where we could win only 161 seats (and Vajpayee became PM for a mere 13 days),” said the BJP source.

On the eve of the last phase of polling, Congress sources are buoyant after a fresh assessment report suggested that the party’s tally could breach 140.

There are four possible scenarios. One, a repeat of the 2004 verdict, where Congress and BJP won nearly the same number of seats, with the former having a slight edge.

Two, a 1996-type verdict, where Congress won around 140 seats but backed the Janata Dal-led United Front government. The Janata Dal had won a mere 40 seats then.

Three, the BJP emerges as the single largest party but is restricted to less than 200. In such a case, just like in November 1989, when Rajiv Gandhi, despite winning 197 seats, politely declined President R Venkatraman’s invitation to form the government, the BJP may not form the government in 2019.

Four, if the NDA is well short of majority and Congress is restricted to less than 120 seats, then regional players will come into picture. “In that case, you may find Sharad Pawar emerging as the dark horse. Pawar Saheb’s name will be proposed by a senior ex-Union minister (who has worked under two prime ministers) and could be backed by AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Naveen Patnaik and KCR,” the Congress source, preferring anonymity, told DH.

“Pawar Saheb enjoys friends across the political spectrum. Further, given his health and age, this could be his last chance. Besides, in the name of him being a Maratha, chances are that even the Shiv Sena could throw its weight behind him (just like it did during Pratibha Patil’s election as President in 2007). Once all these leaders propose Pawar’s name, others, including Stalin’s DMK, the RJD, SP and the JMM, will have to fall in line. And so will Chandrababu Naidu and Jagan Reddy, besides possibly Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan, too,” said the source.

The Congress functionary’s revelation was confirmed by senior party leader Ghulam Nabi Azad’s assertion in Patna on May 15 when he said, “Prime-ministership is not an issue with the Congress. ‘Aisa nahin hain ki hum nahin, toh koi aur bhi nahin’. Our aim is to stop BJP from forming government.”

When contacted, RJD national vice-president Shivanand Tiwary told DH that there was a possibility that Pawar could emerge as the consensus PM nominee  of the opposition. “No other regional leader is as qualified and experienced as Pawar Saheb,” Tiwary told this correspondent.

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