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Sharad Pawar determined to reassert

NCP strongman moots closer alliance with Congress.

Sharad Pawar determined to reassert
Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar seems to be losing his touch going by the recent adverse civic poll results in Maharashtra. His Nationalist Congress Party was worst-hit among parties in the fray. Pawar, who had seen many highs and lows has been synonymous with power politics, both in Maharashtra and the national politics. After his first election to the Maharashtra Assembly in 1967, Pawar has never lost an election and had completed his fifty years in politics recently.

However, the recent elections to the 25 Zilla Parishads and ten municipal corporations in Maharashtra have dealt a severe blow to the NCP. The party came down to the third position from the first despite its perceived strong rural base. Eyebrows are raised because it fared poorly even in Western Maharashtra which is its stronghold. The NCP was ousted from power in four municipal corporations, including Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad, which are Sharad Pawar's bastion. It also lost two other municipal corporations — Solapur and Amravati — where it was ruling in alliance with the Congress.

What does the future hold for Pawar and his party in the aftermath of the recent poll debacle? Is it the end of the road? Is the party over for Pawar personally? Will the NCP survive or wither away? These are some of the questions asked. The civic polls are assuming importance given the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for 2019. While some doomsayers predict that it is the end of the road for Pawar and his party, optimists point out that no party can be wished away just because it lost one civic body elections. Also, it should not be confused with the Assembly or Lok Sabha polls because the voters view them differently. The NCP leaders believe that Pawar has weathered many political storms and this would be just one of them.

Why did the NCP slide? The first is that people have lost faith in both the Congress and the NCP. Some senior party leaders are facing corruption charges. Chagan Bhujwel has been in jail. Ajit Pawar and Sunil Thakre are also facing charges of irregularities in irrigation projects with the result the party did not field them to the campaign. Secondly, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had imported Ajit Pawar's aides in Pimpri-Chinchwad, which hurt the party. The BJP was packed with NCP leaders and aides close to Ajit Pawar, and they were the ones who ensured victory for the BJP.

Thirdly, the NCP is seen at the back of the recent Maratha agitation-demanding quota. This has resulted in the non-Marathas dumping the NCP. Fourthly, the NCP and the Congress fought the elections separately while an alliance would have helped both. Moreover, people were not deceived by Pawar's anti-BJP stand while he was coming to the rescue of BJP when needed. Gestures of the Modi government awarding him Padma Vibhushan did not go unnoticed.

Lastly, Pawar, who has taken a back seat, had been talking of concentrating on social work 60 per cent of his time and doing politics 40 per cent. Now these BMC results have made him come to the forefront again.

The NCP survives mainly because of Sharad Pawar, who has the charisma, leadership qualities, money power, and political acumen. Though he broke out from the Congress and launched his NCP, his party has been in alliance with the Congress and ruled Maharashtra for 15 years. The NCP also had its ministers at the Centre. In 2014, the two had fought separately when the party won just four seats, and in the subsequent Assembly polls, it won 41 seats, its worst ever performance. Now, this civic body poll debacle shows a further slide. What is Pawar's strategy to restore the image of the party? His idea is to form an alliance with the Congress across all the 10 municipal corporations and 25 Zilla Parishads in the state in a post-poll scenario and take it forward to 2019. Within hours Pawar began the negotiations and declared that if both the Congress and the NCP formed an alliance, it could come to power in some 17 to 18 Zilla Parishads of the total 25. He is trying to turn the defeat into a success because of the 1,509 seats in 25 Zilla Parishads, BJP won 406, Congress 309, NCP 360, and Shiv Sena 271.

Pawar has confidence in his nephew Ajit Pawar's leadership qualities, who, unlike some is a 24/7 politician and has developed grass root contacts. While his daughter Supriya is more interested in national politics, Ajit Pawar was the one who was nursing the state all these years. The CBI cases had come in the way but he might become more active before the 2019 polls. Thirdly, the NCP does not lack funds, which is crucial for political success. Fourthly, if the NCP- Congress alliance is taken forward to the 2019 polls, both could benefit.

Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule, reacting to the adverse results said: "It is not the endgame for NCP as we will improve our performance." As it has been proved many times, no politician can be written off, and Pawar is not the one to give up easily. But the NCP has to work hard and go for an alliance with the Congress to improve its position. Sharad Pawar is just doing that.

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)
Kalyani Shankar

Kalyani Shankar

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