An interesting debate has raised its head this week. According to media reports, the anti-BJP camp is debating whether Sonia Gandhi can be replaced by Sharad Pawar as the chairperson of the UPA. With equally interesting ease, the Shiv Sena, which is running the government in Maharashtra with Pawar's party and the Congress too has endorsed his candidature. Pawar has outright rejected the proposal, but the debate goes on.
There are three reasons why this debate is important.
One, Sonia Gandhi is ill, and should not be burdened with the extra pressure of running the UPA.
Two, even before her illness, she had lost her touch of keeping allies in good humour and leading a coalition.
Three, she is no longer decisive as she was known to be. Maybe she has slowed down due to age and illness, but the UPA definitely needs a more dynamic leader to prove itself as a coalition of opposition parties to keep the Modi government on its toes.
But is Sharad Pawar the answer? Three reasons can be cited for those who believe that's correct.
One, the 80-year-old has the stature to lead the coalition. Apart from Parkash Singh Badal, he is the only leader who has vast experience, having run enough governments and done and seen enough politics to claim that space. If the Thackeray government is running smoothly today, credit should be given to Pawar - he was the architect of the coalition.
Two, like an old-fashioned politician, Pawar has friends in every party. He is the most networked politician in the country. Even Modi has publicly called him his political guru (how much this is to be believed is another matter). He can pick up the phone and talk to any leader in the country and is on first-name basis with all of them. This is a huge thing in today's polarised atmosphere.
Three, being based in Mumbai, he can get enough resources for politics, his friendship with big business houses is legendary. Today, the BJP has unimaginable resources to discredit and destroy opposition parties. I am aware that it is impossible to match the BJP on this front, but to put up a good fight, one needs sizeable resources, which Pawar can organize.
But counter-arguments can also be floated. Three equally strong reasons can be articulated for why he is not the right person to lead the coalition.
First, his eminence is unchallenged, but his credibility is suspect. Pawar has a history of deserting his party and leaders. In 1978, he backstabbed his mentor Vasant Dada Patil, broke the party and formed his government. He became the youngest Chief Minister of Maharashtra. He was only 38 then. Pawar finally rejoined the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi in the mid-80s, only to break it again in 1998 when he rebelled against Sonia Gandhi on the issue of her foreign origin. But in 2004, he was again happy to work with Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh and became Agriculture Minister.
Second, ideologically, he is not very solid. Sharad Pawar, in true Machiavellian sense, believes in power politics. For the sake of power, he is willing to make any compromise. In 1978, he was happy to take the support of the Janata Party to become Chief Minister. And to keep his party strong in Maharashtra, he allied with the same Sonia Gandhi against whom he had rebelled, and accepted being the junior partner in the government in 1999.
The Congress, along with Pawar's NCP, ruled Maharashtra for three consecutive five-years terms. But in 2014, when the coalition lost, and the BJP did not have enough seats to run the government, Pawar was ready to extend support to a government led by Devendra Fadnavis (it was a BJP-Sena government that took charge instead). In an era when the political battle is more ideological than nearly ever before, the UPA needs a leader with the courage of his or her political conviction.
Third, Pawar is a big name but he has a limited appeal among the masses. He derives his power from Maharashtra. He takes lot of pride in being called a Maratha leader, but in 1998, when he broke the Congress which was then led by a totally 'inexperienced' Sonia Gandhi, he managed to lure only a few leaders from the party, and in his own bastion in Maharashtra, he failed to get the support of the majority of local leaders.
Even later, in his own state, he was always second fiddle to the Congress and his NCP was never able to form its own government. And on his own party, his grip has loosened: his own nephew, Ajit Pawar, revolted and aligned with the BJP to be sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister in 2019 in the Fadnavis government whose second term lasted just 72 hours before the Sharad Pawar-designed alliance of the Sena, Congress and his party took over.
Consider this too. Sharad Pawar is 80 and is past his prime. India has changed a lot since he was personally on the frontline of politics. The hegemony of the Congress has been replaced by the hegemony of the BJP, backed very strongly by the RSS which is focused on transforming the country into a Hindu Rashtra. Modi, with his unmatchable charisma, has turned BJP into a proposition that rarely loses.
To challenge this leadership, the UPA needs a leader who is not born and brought up in old politics, who is not old-fashioned, who is not traditional. New politics requires a new idiom, a new narrative and a new icon. Sonia Gandhi succeeded in 2004 because she was confronted with traditional politics but today, her failing lies in her inability to comprehend the new realities and the totally new grammar of politics.
Modi can only be challenged by an unorthodox opponent. Like Sonia Gandhi, Pawar is not the answer either.
(Ashutosh is a Delhi-based author and journalist.)
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