NCP chief Sharad Pawar. Photo: HT
NCP chief Sharad Pawar. Photo: HT

NCP flip-flop on Rafale may be bargaining ploy for 2019

Pawar is playing hardball with the Congress which is keen on putting together a mahagathbandhan of parties opposed to the BJP

Mumbai: Statements and swift retractions made by Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar recently about the Rafale deal are part of a careful strategy and bargaining ploy ahead of the 2019 general election, NCP and Congress functionaries feel.

Pawar is playing hardball with the Congress which is keen on putting together a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of parties opposed to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and is echoing the “wider sentiment" among most non-Congress and anti-BJP parties against Congress president Rahul Gandhi leading this grand alliance, NCP and Congress functionaries say.

The NCP functionaries said Pawar cannot be “cajoled into" an anti-BJP or anti-Modi alliance on terms set by the Congress party.

“We are for this anti-BJP alliance and that is why we even suggested that Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) be roped in as well because it is clearly anti-Modi," a senior NCP leader told requesting anonymity.

Last week, Pawar told a Marathi news channel that “people do not doubt the intentions of Modi" in the Rafael deal but demanded that the deal be probed by a joint parliamentary committee and the government reveal the cost of the fighter aircraft.

Two days later he retracted, after BJP president Amit Shah thanked him and the NCP’s Lok Sabha MP and founding member Tariq Anwar quit, blaming Pawar for “weakening the anti-Modi campaign".

Though Pawar tried to make amends saying he never defended Modi, the damage had been done, feel the Congress functionaries in Maharashtra.

“I don’t think a seasoned politician like him could have said something of this sort without thinking through its impact," said a senior Maharashtra Congress functionary, underscoring the importance of keeping the NCP in the anti-BJP alliance, especially after the Bahujan Samaj Party’s decision on Wednesday to go it alone in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh assembly elections.

“In Maharashtra, the NCP is bigger than the BSP is in Madhya Pradesh or Rajasthan," he said.

The NCP leader quoted earlier said Pawar “certainly knew what he was saying and its purport". “If you have observed Pawar saheb’s politics carefully, he has never made wild allegations or repeated someone else’s wild allegations. You must also understand that Pawar saheb has been an industry-friendly politician and administrator and he would not resort to the level of personal mud-slinging against a big company or big industrialist like Anil Ambani just because Rahul Gandhi is doing it. There is a section in the Congress itself which is nervous about Rahul Gandhi’s verbal attack against Ambani," the NCP leader said.

The larger point that Pawar wanted to make, he added, was that not all non-Congress parties which are against the BJP and Modi accepted Rahul Gandhi as the leader of the grand alliance. “There are serious issues with his leadership and this sentiment is strong among most non-Congress parties. If we join in endorsing his line on the Rafael deal, it would mean we have accepted his leadership. NCP alone does not have these reservations. There is TMC (Trinamool Congress), there are Communists and other parties who have this problem and Pawar saheb is only voicing their concerns," said the NCP leader.

A Maharashtra BJP leader and minister, however, rules out the possibility of Pawar warming up to Modi or BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). “He is very much against the BJP. He is telling the Congress that his support comes at a premium. This is typical Pawar," the BJP leader said requesting anonymity.

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