Maharashtra strongman Sharad Pawar surprised everyone by breaking ranks with the Opposition in defending controversial businessman Gautam Adani. He has distanced himself, though not his party, from the demand of 19 Opposition parties for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) inquiry into the Adani affairs.
Even as he may be exploring an alternative political future, the timing of his TV interview suggests that he wants to keep one foot in the door for Opposition unity. Had Pawar spoken up before the Budget Session of Parliament concluded, he would have handed the BJP a hammer to beat the Opposition with.
His interviewer described him as “a man without any enemies”, a good descriptor of his essentially ideology-neutral politics. Pawar is known to prioritise his political interests above all else. He left the Congress (I) led by Indira Gandhi in 1978, to join Congress (Urs) but then formed an alliance with the Congress (I) in Maharashtra, to apparently prevent a Janata Party government. Within a few months, he left the Congress (Urs) to become the Chief Minister of the Progressive Democratic Front alliance government with the Janata Party. He formed the Indian National Congress (Socialist) in 1981 and became its president only to re-join the Congress in 1987 “to prevent the rise of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra”. He jostled for power within the Congress till 1999 and left it arguing that an Italy-born Sonia Gandhi, who had taken over the Congress presidency, could not be a candidate for the post of prime minister. However, within six months he formed an alliance government with her party in Maharashtra, ostensibly to keep the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance from power.
Pawar has always managed to cover his political opportunism with a veneer of grand ideas. It is a measure of his success that he was appointed vice-chairman of the National Disaster Management Committee by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee after the Kutch earthquake.
People may be forgiven for smelling a rat when he defended Adani and the government against the Hindenburg Research allegations. He tried to pass off the allegations against Adani as empty ideological rhetoric, like the routine abuse of “Tata-Birla” in the past without appreciating “their contribution to the nation”. He regurgitated the same cud as advocates of the government have been doing since the scandal broke, claiming he had “never heard of these people (Hindenburg)” and “out of proportion importance” was being given to their allegations.
Pawar’s suggestion that a Supreme Court-ordered inquiry would be better than a JPC is disingenuous. Surely he is aware of the number of such inquiries that have failed to fault the government. The latest being its failure to fix responsibility on any government agency for buying and using Israeli spyware Pegasus against its own citizens. He must also be aware that the brief of the apex court-ordered inquiry has skirted the allegations of a political nexus benefitting Adani.
It can be hypothesised that a four-time chief minister of highly industrialised Maharashtra will be pro-industry. Pawar has admitted in his autobiography “Lok Maze Sangati” that Adani was his friend and had heeded his business advice to get into the power generation sector. He described him as “hard-working, simple, down to earth”. However, in shielding Adani, Pawar has also provided cover to the government.
Coincidentally, less than a week ago, his nephew Ajit Pawar defended the Prime Minister in the university degree row asking, “Was a degree a requirement for that job?” The younger Pawar was obfuscating the issue, which was not about educational qualifications for the job of prime minister but the veracity of the claim. In November 2019 the younger Pawar had tried to abort the alliance government of Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party, and the Congress by trying to form a government with Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP as Chief Minister. Although his tenure came crashing down in 80 hours, the jury is out whether senior Pawar was in the know.
It may be too early to say that the political chameleon from Maharashtra is changing colours again. Today’s BJP leadership has a tougher approach to regional leaders with national aspirations. Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, for example, has been defanged and virtually withdrawn from politics.
Yet, Pawar is aware he could be in the game, as the BJP does not have a strong ally in Maharashtra (48 Lok Sabha seats) or in Bihar (40) for the 2024 general election. In both the states, its erstwhile allies are firmly with the Opposition formations as of now. Communal polarisation may not help the BJP in these states and therefore the BJP needs to break the incipient coming together of the Opposition. In Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) is with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and may coordinate with the other Opposition parties in 2024. There too the woes visited on the family of Lalu Prasad Yadav indicate that the process of dividing the Opposition has begun. In Maharashtra despite the split in the Shiv Sena, one faction remains with the NCP and the Congress and their relative strength is yet to be tested in the hustings. The uncertainty may give Pawar the moment he is waiting for.
There will also be a tussle for seats for the 2024 general election between the constituents of the MVA, the Shiv Sena (UBT), NCP and the Congress. The Shiv Sena has traditionally contested about half the seats in Maharashtra, if it limits itself to only one-third of the constituencies, where will its workers in two-thirds of Maharashtra go except to the Shinde Shiv Sena or the BJP? Can Uddhav Thackeray risk that? The NCP which contested a smaller number of seats than Congress but won more seats than the latter, is also unlikely to curtail its ambitions in the state.
It would seem, therefore, that Pawar is keeping his options open to take a critical decision at the right moment. Maharashtra with 48 Lok Sabha seats is second only to UP in terms of its contribution to the Lok Sabha. Therefore, the BJP may be open to Pawar’s gambit but is unlikely to show its hand just yet.