Pawar's belated innings
Though Pawar is taking deliberate charge, any unified oppositional front would ideally be led by Sonia Gandhi
It is rather late in the day for the septuagenarian Sharad Pawar to try and emerge as a major player on the national stage. Even if the NCP leader succeeded in assembling a number of parties for his "Save the Constitution" rally in Mumbai on Republic Day, the chances are that he will have to yield the leadership role to some other claimant sooner or later.
This was evident in his acquiescence to the Congress's suggestion during a sparsely-attended get-together at Pawar's residence in New Delhi that a larger meeting will be called by Sonia Gandhi, which she did. It is obvious that once the former Congress president and currently the leader of the Congress parliamentary party takes the initiative in setting up an anti-BJP front, Pawar will have to step back.
In any event, the enterprise he showed for the Mumbai rally was rather odd, for he hasn't exactly been in the forefront of a campaign against the BJP. On the contrary, there were suspicions about backdoor negotiations between the NCP and the BJP for an alliance in Maharashtra, in case the Shiv Sena proved to be too troublesome for the Devendra Fadnavis government.
One reason for such misgivings is that the relation between the Congress and the NCP has been rather strained in recent years. This discord was evident in the NCP's support for the BJP in the Rajya Sabha elections from Gujarat, where the Congress's Ahmed Patel was a candidate, and again during the recent Assembly elections in the state when the presence of NCP and BSP candidates was said to have cost the Congress at least 10 seats.
For the time being, however, both the Congress and the NCP appear to have decided to start on clean slate probably because they sense that the Narendra Modi government is not on as strong a wicket as it was in the period immediately after 2014. Hence, the Congress's decision to participate in the Mumbai rally along with the Left, the Trinamool Congress, the National Conference and others such as Hardik Patel, the Patidar leader from Gujarat.
However, the absence of the Trinamool Congress, the Samajwadi Party and the BSP from Pawar's New Delhi meeting appears to have given the Congress a chance to wrest the leadership role back from the NCP leader. Both these parties were present at the meeting called by Sonia Gandhi on February 1, along with the NCP, National Conference, RJD and CPI.
To many observers, the Congress will appear to be the natural leader of an anti-BJP front. The reason is that, for one, the Congress is still the main opposition party in the Lok Sabha and has an all-India presence even in its present weakened state; and, for another, Pawar simply doesn't have the stature to play a national role.
Notwithstanding his becoming the chief minister of a large and important state like Maharashtra at the young age (for a politician) of 39 in 1978, he hasn't been able to go any further up the ladder. For all practical purposes, he has remained a regional leader, although he has been a defence and an agriculture minister at the centre.
What has probably held him back is his expedient shifts of allegiance from the Congress to the Janata Party in 1978, then to form his own Congress (Socialist) in the early 1980s and finally the NCP in 1999. Sonia Gandhi is unlikely to have any difficulty, therefore, in assuming the mantle of the leader of a non-BJP combine.
If the Congress wants her to come out of semi-retirement, it is apparently because of the realisation that notwithstanding Rahul Gandhi's credible show in Gujarat, he is not yet ready to play the leadership role at the national level side-by-side with senior leaders like Farooq Abdullah, Pawar and Sharad Yadav. Since age carries a great deal of weight in India, the 47-year-old Congress president may not quite be able to have his way as he did with Hardik Patel, Jignesh Mewani and Alpesh Thakore in Gujarat.
He may also face the problem of other contenders like Mamata Banerjee staking their claims for leading the charge against the BJP. The Trinamool Congress leader has long nurtured the ambition of playing a stellar role at the national level without much success.
At a time when there is a need to put together a credible opposition front, leaders who do not make the grade,
to put it bluntly, should step aside in favour of a national party. Otherwise, they will only create confusion in the non-BJP ranks to the benefit of the lotus brigade.
(The views expressed are strictly personal.)