Sharad Pawar, the canny architect of the alliance government in Maharashtra, has set anew the agenda for the opposition - expose the BJP's hypocrisy, deny Prime Minister Narendra Modi the high moral ground, and be on the offensive 24/7.
For now, the BJP and its prime movers, Modi and union Home Minister Amit Shah, should worry.
Pawar is one of India's shrewdest politicians, he weighs each word he utters carefully. For him to go public in a TV interview on an alleged offer made by Modi last month "to work together" is a public shot. In an interview to ABP-Majha, Pawar said that Modi also offered his daughter Supriya Sule, a spot in the union government if Pawar agreed to team with the BJP to form the government in Maharashtra.
The "indecent proposal" was made to Pawar after publicly praising him and his party, the NCP or Nationalist Congress Party, in parliament. Pawar says he said "Thanks, but no thanks". The alleged offer was presented in a one-to-one meeting between Modi and Pawar on November 20 during the fraught period when both the BJP and its rivals were trying to knit together a government in Maharashtra, the formation of which was stuck because of mistrust between the group of anti-BJP parties and their vastly differing ideologies.
Pawar has gone public on Modi's proposal to expose the BJP's unbridled lust for power in Maharashtra at a time when critics of the PM see him as having compromised his reputation and image by facilitating the lifting of President's Rule at the crack of dawn to allow an early-bird swearing-in of the BJP's Devendra Fadnavis as Chief Minister. Modi has repeatedly called the NCP a "naturally corrupt party" during the campaign for Maharashtra. His party's 72-hour-long alliance with Ajit Pawar, who is the nephew of Sharad Pawar, ended with Pawar Senior yanking his relative back to his side of the court. The Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance then took charge of Maharashtra with Uddhav Thackeray at its helm.
Till now, Modi had successfully portrayed himself as a fierce anti-corruption crusader with the war cry "Na khaoonga, na khaney doonga" (neither will I be corrupt nor will I allow anyone else's corruption on my watch).
Pawar's claim, which maximizes the current backlash for the BJP after its Maharashtra Misadventure, attempts to puncture huge holes in Modi's public claims and fully expose the BJP's desperation for power. He has ensured that Modi and the BJP can't claim the high moral ground and victimhood so dear to Indian politicians when caught in a weak moment.
But by exposing Modi's proposal to sunlight, Pawar has also rather aggressively burnt his bridges with him. This is atypical since Pawar is known for his ability to join any table for lunch - he has friends in every camp. Modi is known to have a very long memory and does not let go of a grudge. In this particular version outed by Pawar, Modi comes off as an unprincipled hypocrite, something he will not tolerate.
So why has Pawar risked this given the union government's propensity to target rivals with hardcore methods, including through investigative agencies? He wants to signal to his unlikely Maharashtra alliance partners, Uddhav Thackeray and the Congress, that he is genuinely a team player and that their suspicions of him as a fair weather friend are unfounded.
Pawar, whose own reputation is that of a fickle ally, has tried to reassure Thackeray that he is committed to the Maharashtra partnership for the long haul and is not test-driving other options. Advisors of Congress chief Sonia Gandhi have long tried to convince her that Pawar is not to be trusted. Pawar has publicly put them in their place. Sources in the Congress say that Gandhi, who pursues pragmatic politics, has been entirely guided by Pawar in the Maharashtra government play and feels that he is vindicated after the swearing-in of their government.
"The state of the Congress and the opposition entails that Gandhi publicly ask Pawar and other breakaway congress leaders like Mamata Banerjee, (West Bengal Chief Minister) to return to the broad umbrella that is the Congress party," a senior Congress leader told me. "Getting rooted regional leaders back is the only way the opposition can challenge Modi's BJP. Sadly for the Congress, Rahul Gandhi is totally against such a move."
After taking office as Chief Minister, Uddhav Thackeray has lost no time in reversing large decisions taken by his predecessor, Fadnavis, including calling off the controversial car shed project for which thousands of trees were cut (part of the Mumbai metro project) and making it clear that he could well terminate Modi's dream project, the bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.
It isn't just Modi who Pawar has targeted. He has also said that he wants a new and thorough investigation into the sudden death of Judge BH Loya who was hearing the case of the fake encounter of Sohrabuddin Sheikh in which Amit Shah was an accused (he was discharged by the judge who took over the case from Loya). Pawar's demand for a fresh investigation is a clear move against Shah. Senior NCP leaders say it is a warning for Shah and the BJP not to destabilise the Maharashtra government.
Fresh off his Maharashtra success, Pawar is emerging as a possible fulcrum for opposition unity. Pawar will turn 80 on December 12 and the celebrations are likely to be a toast to opposition strength. He has his work cut out for him.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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