One day last week, thousands of men in white congregated at a dusty public ground in Satara. As this writer’s car drew up at the ground, he received a call on his mobile phone from an unlisted number.
“This is Sharad Pawar. You can join me after the rally for a ride to Pune. You will find a steel-coloured station wagon next to the podium....”
Also Read Chiranjeevi | The ‘megastar’ hopes to score a smash hit on debut
Rahul Gandhi | Content to wait in the wings
The last part of the instructions is unnecessary in this part of Maharashtra. Here, in the state’s sugar belt, most people recognize Pawar’s high-performance utility vehicles. And almost everyone here credits him with development in the region, even the state.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Later, as he speaks to this writer in the cool confines of his car, Pawar stresses the importance of keeping in touch with voters in his constituency. “This is my 14th election and (during elections) I come to my constituency only twice—first to file nomination papers and later to address a public rally.”
“But I do keep in contact with my electorate throughout the five-year period,” he adds. “One has to work quietly with lot of commitment.”
To be sure, Pawar’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed in western Maharashtra, and many here credit him with the rapid industrialization seen in the region. Yet this very focus on the region seems to have been counterproductive. Even today, Sharadchandra Govindrao Pawar, 68, is known as a Maratha leader. And he has been unable to inspire confidence in non-Marathas, within the state of Maharashtra, and outside it.
“He was a sub-regional leader, but some time ago. Today his appeal is pan-Maharashtra. There is no other leader of his stature. He is (the) third most important leader the state has seen after Y.B. Chavan and Vasantrao Naik,” says political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan.
Once spoken of as a prime ministerial candidate, he is today seen as a national leader, but with a limited regional base and appeal.
Click here to rate your leaders
RISE TO POWER
protege of the late Y.B. Chavan, the first chief minister of Maharashtra, Pawar won his first election from Baramati in 1967 as a Congress candidate—this was to the state assembly. Since then, he has remained undefeated from the constituency, both in assembly and parliamentary elections. Baramati was once a rural, agricultural region that received little rainfall. Today, it is one of the most irrigated and industrialized regions in Maharashtra although there is a school of thought that says water for the region’s cane farmers came at the cost of other farmers in the state’s Vidarbha region—an area that has repeatedly hit the headlines because of farmer suicides.
Also See At A Glance (PDF)
“Clearly western Maharashtra has received (a) disproportionate share of power, irrigation and agrarian credit as compared to Vidarbha or Konkan. Sick sugar mills and cooperative bodies have been beneficiaries of government doles and bailouts. They became virtual oligarchies. Even the current chief minister Ashok Rao Chavan is from western Maharashtra,” says Rangarajan.
After then prime minister Indira Gandhi’s unpopular emergency rule in the mid-1970s, Pawar left the Congress and formed the government in the state in 1979 with the assistance of the Janata Party. That was his first stint as chief minister but it was a brief one. Indira Gandhi returned to power and dismissed the state government in 1980. Pawar, however, continued to rule Baramati. Even in 1984, when the Congress swept to power after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, he retained his hold over the constituency—winning his first parliamentary election from it on an independent ticket. In 1986, after some hard bargaining, Pawar returned to the Congress and became Maharashtra’s chief minister again.
The Congress needed him to counter the Shiv Sena’s appeal among Maharashtrians. At the same time, however, many people in the party were wary of Pawar’s motives.
In 1991, when the Congress returned to power at the Centre following former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination on the campaign trail, Pawar was a contender for the post of prime minister. He was pipped at the post by P.V. Narasimha Rao, a scholarly politician from Andhra Pradesh. Rao made Pawar his defence minister for a while before packing him off to Maharashtra as chief minister.
That stint proved his most controversial. Mumbai was wreaked by communal riots in the wake of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Pawar’s government was also blamed for its inept negotiations with Enron over the Dabhol Power Co.—which meant that the state would have to pay more for the power generated by the firm. Then, the then deputy commissioner of Brihanmumbai municipal corporation, G.R. Khairnar, accused him of corruption and shielding criminals. Khairnar could not prove his charges, but they affected Pawar’s public image.
In 1997, Pawar unsuccessfully challenged Sitaram Kesri for the presidentship of the Congress party. Two years later he once again left the Congress to form the Nationalist Congress Party, or NCP. He opposed a move to make Sonia Gandhi, an Italian by birth, the leader of the Congress. Yet, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance surprisingly came to power in 2004, Pawar was very much a part of it. He was inducted into Manmohan Singh’s cabinet as food and agriculture minister.
MR GREEN THUMB
awar was in his own turf on agriculture. He comes from a farming background and was responsible for the greening of Baramati. He regularly organizes conferences and seminars, calling in experts from developed nations. He has encouraged agricultural research, agriculture extension, and dairy and poultry development in Baramati. And he keeps track of what’s happening in the sector.
Inside the SUV, he opens a message on his phone and hands it to this writer. It’s an update (to the date) of the amount of wheat bought by the government to feed its public distribution system. The message showed that 11 million tonnes of wheat had been bought till 19 April, compared with 4.4 million tonnes in the same period in 2008. “Look how it has grown,” Pawar says.
Despite his national role, it is clear that Pawar is happiest discussing agriculture. Or Maharashtra. He knows every district of Maharashtra, and possibly every leader in each unit by name. As the SUV drives across a flyover in Pune, he looks out with satisfaction at the high-rises that dot the skyline. “Earlier, there were only 50 voters from this place, now it should be over 5,000.” Further down the road he says, “The councillor here is from my party.” In response to a question as to how heremembers everyone’s names, he simply says, “I know them for a long time.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
he next generation of NCP leaders are built in Pawar’s image. The list of such leaders includes his nephew Ajit Pawar, R.R. Patil, Jayant Patil, Dilip Walse-Patil, and the most recent entrant, his daughter Supriya Sule.
Pawar has vacated the family borough of Baramati for her and will instead contest the elections from the adjoining, newly created Madha parliamentary seat.
“They are all below 45, educated, talented and have a clean image,” he says proudly of the next generation of the NCP. And many of them retain his common touch. Sule, for instance, is a social activist who has been supporting and running a number of self-help groups that include schools for nomadic and tribal girls. Sule admits her father has influenced her a “lot”. She lists “complete dedication to his work, connected to his voters, and his vision—he can think miles ahead over others”, as three things she learnt from him.
Pawar also has a reputation for firefighting and problem solving. “Pawar has a remarkable ability to sort out complicated issues,” says Suresh Kalmadi, Congress candidate from Pune. Apart from being a key skill during an era of coalition politics, this also makes Pawar an in-demand arbitrator. For instance, he played a role in resolving issues between Rahul Bajaj and his brother Shishir.
Pawar’s arbitration and leadership skills have also seen him head sports bodies such as the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the world’s richest cricket board.
Pawar refuses to discuss with this writer comments by some of his partymen projecting him as a prime ministerial candidate. One such person, who does not want to be identified, says, “There is something called luck,” hinting at the possibility of this. But Sule is dismissive of such suggestions: “You have to be practical. You need numbers and we are present in only five states.”
And the party has just nine representatives in the outgoing Lok Sabha. Still, coalition politics has traditionally proved simple math wrong.