Opinion: Mamata Banerjee Hits A Wall With Sharad Pawar And Sena

The Thackeray Government in Maharashtra, standing on the crutches of the Congress and Sharad Pawar's NCP, is confronting Mamata Banerjee's demolition drive. Many people may find my words bizarre, but the ferocity with which Mamata Banerjee and her advisers have launched their attack on the Congress and its leadership should have resulted in the Maharashtra government as the first casualty. Mamata Banerjee's first outreach destination was Mumbai, where she met Sharad Pawar. This seemed like an attempted body blow to the Congress after having poached Congress members in Goa, Assam, Bihar, Haryana and Tripura. The idea seems to have been that if Sharad Pawar could be lured to Mamata Banerjee's camp, the Congress edifice would crumble. And one cannot really fault Mamata Banerjee and her advisers for thinking so, but there is a catch.

Sharad Pawar is known for his political somersaults; he is unpredictable and Machiavellian. He was also the first main leader in the Congress to rebel against Sonia Gandhi's leadership and her foreign origins in 1998 when she was asked to take over the Congress after the disastrous tenure of Sitaram Kesari as its President. Along with P Sangma and Tariq Anwar, Sharad Pawar split the Congress, formed the NCP, and later aligned with the very same Congress to enjoy power in Maharashtra and at the centre. But Pawar, who is seen as the Grand Old Man of Indian politics, has not hinted at just how far along he will go with Mamata Banerjee's campaign to weaken the Congress. No wonder the Maharashtra government is still standing on three legs.

No doubt, Sharad Pawar has reasons to not be comfortable in the company of Sonia Gandhi and her family. It was Sonia Gandhi who aborted his chances of becoming Prime Minister in 1991 after the demise of the National Front Government. Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated, the experiments of the VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar governments had failed miserably, and the Congress did not have a majority in the Lok Sabha. The race for Prime Ministership was narrowed down to Sharad Pawar, Arjun Singh and PV Narasimha Rao. It was Sonia Gandhi's support that installed Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister. Sharad Pawar has always begrudged this.

Mamata Banerjee was in the Congress at this time and was supposed to have a very good relationship with Sharad Pawar; both exited the Congress and formed their own parties in two different geographical regions, and the cordiality remained intact. It is also true that Sharad Pawar even now is not a supporter of Rahul Gandhi's working style, but nonetheless, after meeting with Mamata Banerjee in Mumbai last week, he has not given any reason to believe that he will ditch the Congress.

Sharad Pawar's close confidante, Praful Patel, did make certain statements yesterday that could be misconstrued. After the meeting of the NCP's working committee, he said, "(Our) Leaders have agreed to work with like-minded parties for the coming elections...we will work with Mamata Banerjee." But any inference that Sharad Pawar is ready to jettison the Congress is more a flight of one's imagination rather than sound political analysis. Sharad Pawar knows that for his party to survive, the Maharashtra government must do so as well. And that can only happen if the Congress and he continue to work together in harmony.

In coalition governments, irritation and minor discomfort within partners are a reality, but rarely do they flourish enough to cause the collapse of a government. Let's not forget that Sharad Pawar has been a trusted partner of the Congress. They ran a coalition government in Maharashtra for 15 years. Not many will remember that through that time, the NCP did not demand the Chief Minister's post even once; the Congress for its part changed its Chief Minister three times. This tells us that Sharad Pawar understands the dynamic of local politics in Maharashtra, and he also knows that the Congress and the NCP can survive only by working together and if they stop, the only beneficiary will be the BJP.

The Shiv Sena is equally important in Sharad Pawar's future scheme of things. Remarkably, the Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray has proved to be a more reliable and stable partner than Sharad Pawar though they are unlikely allies, not natural partners by any stretch of imagination. One is a hard-core Hindutva party and the other calls itself a secular formation. Since the formation of the government, the Shiv Sena has not given any hint even once that it regrets being with the Congress. And over the last few days, it has gone out of its way to defend the Congress with Sanjay Raut, its firebrand leader, declaring that no Opposition unity is possible without the Congress. He admitted that the Congress has its weaknesses but categorically said that Mamata Banerjee's attempt might bolster the 'fascist' regime at the Centre. Given the present circumstances, when it has become fashionable for a section of Left-Liberal political analysts and politicians to ridicule the Congress and Rahul Gandhi, this is enormous support for the party.

It might be argued that the Shiv Sena is acting purely in its own interest since it wants to remain in power in Maharashtra. The BJP has tried repeatedly to dislodge the state government and any sign of weakness could give it the edge it needs. But the Sena has a strong and length record of "alliance dharma". Since its inception, when Bala Saheb Thackeray was at the helm, the Shiv Sena was a trusted ally of the BJP for more than three decades. It divorced the BJP when it felt betrayed about not being offered the position of Chief Minister despite their private agreement. And once it took the decision, neither threats nor cushy offers by the Centre could change its decision. Given the large national appeal of the BJP currently, the Sena could benefit by recombining with it but not once has it suggested it is open to this.

Mamata Banerjee or her high-profile advisers may think that she can easily dislodge the Congress from the national scene because she has gained a major victory over the BJP in West Bengal but apart from that denting much-needed Opposition unity, she could end up discrediting herself. That should be something to look out for. 

(Ashutosh is Author and Editor, satyahindi.com.)

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