Originally Published 2010-07-17 00:00:00 Published on Jul 17, 2010
Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar made two intelligent moves this month. The timing is perfect, but the move can go in any direction. It may either mark the decline of the NCP or contribute to spreading of his party beyond Maharashtra.
Sharad Pawar's Move:  NCP's Growth or Decline?
Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Chandra Govindrao Pawar made two intelligent moves this month and both are likely to impact the future of his Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) though it is difficult to make the assessment at the present juncture.

The timing is perfect, but the move can go in any direction as it may either mark the decline of the NCP or it may contribute to spreading of the party beyond Maharashtra.

First, the Maratha strongman created ripples by announcing that the NCP will set up a non-Congress Secular Democratic Front (SDF) across different States and then he went to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the request to relieve him of some of the ministerial burden he carries on his shoulders.

While his request to the Prime Minister, in the light of his becoming the Chairman of the International Cricket Council (ICC) is aimed at getting more time for the party so that he can expand the party's base, the announcement to form SDF is not only to silence a section of the Congress leaders who have been questioning the raison d'etre of the NCP in the light of the foreign origin issue of Congress President Sonia Gandhi becoming redundant but also to remain in contention for the country's top job in case the Congress Party's political fortunes start going down in the wake of unprecedented price rise and other issues. At the same time, he can accommodate one or two NCP colleagues in the Union Cabinet in the slots vacated by him.

This is nothing new, Pawar is an astute player of politics as he always knew and always knows which side of the bread is buttered. His moves are essentially targeted at the Congress Party which has been troubling him for some time now.

In actual terms, the battle is for the political space which he wants to snatch away from the country's oldest party. At the same time, the Congress also wants to recapture the constituency which it had ceded in late 80s, 90s and the early years of the 21st century to parties like the NCP, BJP, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and others.

The NCP came into existence on 25 May, 1999. It was the time when Congress President Sonia Gandhi was making efforts to revive the political fortunes of the party and the BJP was forging ahead and its political fortunes were on the upswing. The NDA had come to power in 1998 and it was almost certain that the Vajpayee government would come back to power.

Smelling that remaining in the Congress would not serve his interest, Pawar along with former Lok Sabha Speaker P. A. Sangma and Bihar Congress leader Tariq Anwar left the party on the issue of the foreign origin of Sonia Gandhi and formed the Nationalist Congress Party which is a look alike of the country's oldest party. It advertised itself then, and continues to do so even today, despite its close rapport with the BJP and Shiv Sena on many issues, as a progressive, secular party that stands for "democracy, Gandhian secularism, equality, social justice and federalism". It has sought to position itself as a moderate, centrist alternative to the BJP and the Indian National Congress.

In its decade long existence, the NCP has largely been a motley collection of only those leaders who are either disgruntled in the Congress or in other parties or have scores to settle with the party leadership. Any crisis in the Congress is seen as an opportunity by the NCP leadership.

Sensing that the Congress is gaining political ground, Pawar has made the move to capture all those Congress leaders who would feel uncomfortable or would be marginalized in months and years to come. In Pawar's assessment, many party leaders would be out of sync with Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi.

Running with the hare and hunting with the hound, the NCP supremo has the knack of remaining relevant even in adverse circumstances as he has a strong business sense and knows how to use his clout. That is precisely why he directed his party spokesman Devi Prasad Tripathi to announce that the NCP would form a Secular Democratic Front (SDF) across different States.

While in other States, the NCP would make efforts to form the SDF, Pawar has made it clear that his party is part of the Left Democratic Front in Kerala which is the rival of the Congress-led United Democratic Front. At the same time, the NCP has made it clear that it was firmly with the Congress led UPA at the Centre.

Pawar is eyeing at Andhra, Assam, Bihar and UP at present. In Andhra, Pawar is said to be in touch with Jagan Mohan Reddy who has defied the party high command and has embarked upon "odarpu" (consolation) yatra in his state for his father Dr Y S Rajshekhara Reddy who died in an air clash. If the estranged son of former Andhra Chief Minister decides to leave the Congress, Pawar will welcome him to the NCP. At the same time, the NCP has been in close touch with the Telgu Desam Party and the Left also.

Similarly, Pawar is in touch with Rastriya Lok Dal leader Ajit Singh for carving out political space in Uttar Pradesh where he has failed to make a dent despite his best efforts in last 10 years. In Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal of former Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav and Lok Janshakti Party of former Union Minister Ramvilas Paswan are going to be the NCP partners.

In Orissa, the NCP is in touch with the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and Assam Ganotantra Parishad is the partner in Assam. In Goa, the NCP already has a presence and has a share in the ruling coalition. In Nagaland, the NCP is in alliance with the BJP.

But ideological contradictions have never bothered the Maratha strongman as he had a very cozy and fruitful relationship with the ruling NDA led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

He knows fully well that his strength lies in his own home State and his grip over the western Maharashtra and its electorate is intact. He is credited with changing the face of the region in few decades. Formerly barren, Pawar's constituency Baramati has emerged as an agricultural centre and is buzzing with activities. From cultivating rice to dairying to growing grapes for winemaking, he has encouraged farmers to do all and he has facilitated their way.

The NCP's future without Pawar is impossible to imagine as seventy year old (born on December 12, 1940) Pawar has not been keeping very good health. That is why he had brought in his daughter Supriya Sule as his heir. There are already tensions as his nephew Ajit Pawar is reportedly not very pleased with his uncle's move to pass on the political heritage to his daughter.

Outside Maharashtra, his political moves like the latest one of forming a non-Congress, non-BJP front are aimed at needling the Congress for extracting the best bargain.

In short, Congress' woes and problems are Pawar's source of strength and a cause of celebration as the NCP spokesman admitted saying that "the aim is to strengthen our base. If the Congress doesn't give us space, we will try and find out our own".

(The author is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation)

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