Modi and Pawar. Natural, if Unofficial, Allies

Published: February 17, 2015 17:43 IST
Mumbai:  (Rana Ayyub is an award-winning investigative journalist and political writer. She is working on a book on Prime Minister Narendra Modi which will be published later this year.)

Late in December, BJP party president Amit Shah who had led the party to victory in Maharashtra called on Sharad Pawar at a Mumbai hospital. Pawar, the chief of the Nationalist Congress Party or NCP, had injured himself at his Delhi residence and was flown to Mumbai for treatment; he is still recuperating in the financial capital.

Many lauded Shah's gesture whose party, during the campaign for the state election, had scathingly referred to the NCP as a "Naturally Corrupt Party."

But the volte-face not a major shock. When the BJP did not clear a majority in Maharashtra, and was in terse negotiations with preferred partner Shiv Sena, it was Pawar's party which offered unconditional support. So it was not surprising that Shah visited Pawar given the potential of a mutually beneficial relationship.

The meeting had another motive. NCP heavyweight Ganesh Naik who left the Shiv Sena and joined Pawar in the 90s enjoys tremendous political influence in the Thane, Navi Mumbai belt, especially among mathadi kamgaar workers (unorganized labour) who form an important and chunky votebank. Naik who had served as Guardian Minister for Thane had remained  one of Pawar's most reliable men despite his alleged involvement  in illegal quarrying.

The Maharashtra results which saw a huge surge in the popularity of the BJP had Naik concerned about his own prospects, and he reportedly  communicated to Pawar that he was keen on joining the BJP, not least because his men were on the verge of rebellion.

Naik also skipped a very important meeting of NCP leaders in Mumbai in December . His absence would have meant further losses for the NCP in  municipal elections due in 2017 in the state.

 Those elections are crucial for the BJP to cut the Sena down to size.  Though they are co-governing Maharashtra, the alliance is an onerous one, and the Sena repeatedly attacks the BJP in public.   

Amit Shah has reportedly promised Pawar that the BJP will not add  Ganesh Naik as a member  for as long as the NCP helps combat the Sena in the municipal elections and helps important legislation move through the Maharashtra state assembly.

It was also at December's hospital visit that Shah discussed the modalities of Modi's visit to Baramati, the Pawar family stronghold.

In his speech at Baramati three days ago , Modi heaped praise on Pawar, calling him a politician whose help was needed in national interest and strategic affairs of the country "I speak to Sharad Pawar more than two times a month. Sharad Pawar has always thought of farmers' plight, " he said in a state where farmer suicides remain unabated.
The Shiv Sena, which has been keeping a close watch on the NCP- BJP love affair, is in the know of the agreement between the two parties, and has used every possible occasion in the last three months to take a dig at the Modi-Shah combo. The fusillade of criticism against the BJP has included taunts after its massive defeat to Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi and a verbal thrashing of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis over this week's shooting of CPI activist Gautam Pansare and his wife in Maharashtra.

For the BJP, the Sena and the Akalis in Punjab are turning into problematic allies. So it makes sense to have Pawar firmly by its side. It's a quid pro quo for the two in the state with rumors emanating from the NCP that the party could join the Prime Minister's central government, should the need arise.
Irrespective of the numbers , Sharad Pawar, easily one of the most shrewd and astute old men in Indian politics, is a politician Modi would want to keep by his side, not just as an able negotiator during crises ( he was called the UPA's trouble shooter), but also as a counterpoint to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra.

The control of the sugar industry of Maharashtra  and the powerful cooperatives are evenly divided between the Congress, the Sena and the NCP.  Pawar can help the BJP keep the other parties' hold in check.

For Pawar , the Modi-Shah support is necessary to keep in check any rebellion against his daughter Supriya Sule from his party members including nephew Ajit Pawar and former Aviation Minister Praful Patel who in the past has permitted the floating of rumors of him leaving the party . With RR Patil's untimely death and Pawar's health woes, the NCP bastion needs some buttressing.

Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena has been having back-channel talks with state leaders from the Congress like Narayan Rane; it has also allegedly reached out to NCP leader Ganesh Naik to return to the fold and strengthen the party.

Which means in the next few months, the tug-of-war between the Sena and BJP, despite being allies, will continue and so will the late-night meetings. The BJP will find kind words for  "the naturally corrupt party" and Saamna, the Sena newspaper, will continue its attack on the BJP with its sharp editorials.

This is the kind of politics synonymous with Maharashtra, the kind which translated into the award-winning Marathi film 'Sinhasan', ironically directed by Pawar's closest confidante Jabbar Patel. Much more to follow, stay tuned.

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