|CURRENT ISSUE DECEMBER 27, 2004|
| Rallying For Pawar |
Even as the Congress tries to placate Sharad Pawar, the Maratha leader is wooing miffed allies to make himself relevant within the UPA
|By Priya Sahgal|
On paper he is merely a regional leader of a party with nine members in the Lok Sabha. But when Sharad Pawar celebrated his 65th birthday last week, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) had a star-studded guest list. Even Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) made the trip-short on geography but long on nuances-from 10 Janpath to Pawar confidant and Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel's house. Along with her came the prime minister and half the Union Cabinet. It was not as much of a birthday celebration as a shakti pradarshan (display of strength).
"Where is the question of ignoring Pawar? I am doing well. Why should I depend on others?" Pawar told india today when asked if the special appearance at his birthday was a placatory gesture on behalf of the Congress president. His bluster aside, the NCP leader has been given a somewhat shabby treatment by his ally during the past couple of months. First, there was the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) election, where the Congress did not extend support to the NCP leader's candidature. Pawar lost that election. Then followed the Maharashtra assembly polls where the NCP emerged as the single largest party but had to concede the chief minister's post to the Congress. The last straw was when the Congress made S.M. Krishna the governor of Maharashtra without consulting the NCP.
In fact, Pawar learnt of the former Karnataka chief minister's appointment only through television. As Krishna had taken an anti-Maharashtra stand on the border dispute between the two states, the NCP was totally unprepared for this move. NCP sources, however, claim that when they raised the matter with both Sonia and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, they were reassured that the snub was "inadvertent" and that Home Minister Shivraj Patil had been asked to inform the NCP of Krishna's appointment before it was announced to the media.
However, it needed a public gesture rather than whispered reassurances to mollify Pawar's thrice-wounded pride. So when Patel met Sonia on December 8-incidentally her birthday eve-and invited her for dinner, she immediately accepted the offer. And Pawar followed this up by visiting her with flowers and Patel the next day.
Post birthday diplomacy, Pawar can afford to be magnanimous. "Choosing the governor is the chief minister's prerogative. Why should I feel left out?" he now asks. That was not the NCP's stand a week ago when Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister R.R. Patil had complained, "We would have appreciated it if the NCP was consulted before Krishna's appointment."
There is a reason why the Maratha leader needs to be placated. Pawar has done his coalition arithmetic and realises that there are as many as 80 non-Left, non-Congress MPs in the UPA. If he can control this bloc, he can gain bargaining clout within the coalition. What helps is that he has a personal equation with the leaders of parties outside the UPA as well. Like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ajit Singh, who have 40 MPs between them. In fact, Samajwadi Party sources claim that they are willing to work out floor coordination in Parliament with Pawar and other "like-minded allies".
Moreover, apart from Laloo Prasad Yadav, the Maratha is the seniormost leader among the allies. He also shares a good rapport with Manmohan. Recently, when Laloo was miffed with the Congress for not supporting him when he raised the Gauri Advani issue in Parliament, Manmohan asked Pawar to speak to the RJD president. The Congress was not keen to give credence to the allegations made by the estranged daughter-in-law of BJP chief L.K. Advani and had decided not to interfere in what was a family quarrel. Laloo was keen to play up the issue on the eve of Bihar assembly elections. He refused to listen to reason until Pawar spoke to him. And now the Maratha strongman is set to share the dais with the fiery Bihari at a rally in Patna on December 23.
Over the last month Pawar has become the rallying point for all those allies who have been neglected by the Congress-whether it is someone of Laloo's stature or a smaller player like the Telangana Rashtra Samithi chief Chandrasekhar Rao or the JMM's Shibu Soren. Fed up with the Congress' dilly-dallying on the formation of a separate Telangana state, Rao invited Pawar to share a public platform with him in Delhi where he reiterated his party's claim. Pawar claims that the duo did not demand anything that was not mentioned in the Common Minimum Programme. But the signal was clear: in case of a cold and unsupportive Congress, a warmer NCP shoulder is always there. This was followed by a press conference by NCP General Secretary D.P. Tripathi where he raised the issue of infrequent UPA meetings and complained that the Congress was treating the alliance like a "fiefdom" and not a coalition. In response, the Congress immediately held a coordination meeting on the eve of the winter session of Parliament.
Patel, who plays a key role in the Sonia-Pawar dynamics, however, denies any attempt to form a ginger group within the UPA, saying that they were merely trying to "keep up good relations with our allies". But with the Congress playing a blow hot-blow cold game with the NCP, such a pressure group can only be an asset. "While the BJP pandered to its NDA allies a bit too much, the Congress needs to consult its allies more often," points out NCP Rajya Sabha member Tariq Anwar.
And who knows the wilful ways of the Congress better than an ex-Congressman? Says Pawar: "We may be a small party but we are relieved that we are free and can take our own decisions." Underneath that declaration of independence is a veiled warning for the Congress. And unfortunately for coalition protocol, birthdays come only once a year.