Just looking: Pawar with daughter Supriya Sule
Never choosy, Sharad Pawar is hanging around fences separating the UPA, Third Front, even the NDA

On March 12, Sharad Pawar, NCP president and prime minister-hopeful, paid a visit to his native Nandwal village in Satara. He kicked off his election campaign after seeking the blessings of the gram devata, Mhatoba. Pawar will need all the blessings he can garner, given that he is playing a double game—keeping his options open with the Congress as well as with the Third Front.

Pawar will contest the Lok Sabha from the newly-carved-out constituency of Madha, a rural but typical sugar-belt constituency. He has bequeathed Baramati, which he represented for six successive terms, to daughter Supriya Sule. When he asked her to take over Baramati, Pawar’s idea was to take the RS route to Parliament. But he has changed his mind. Sources say this has something to do with post-election options. He sees 2009 as his now-or-never moment to become PM.

While breaking bread with the Congress, Pawar has been talking to several "friends"—from AIADMK’s J. Jayalalitha to bjd’s Naveen Patnaik, for which he made a visit to Bhubaneshwar earlier this month. This serves two purposes—it helps him keep the Congress guessing about his next move, and, more importantly, it allows him to build the base he is looking for to emerge as the leader of a non-Congress, non-BJP formation.

If the Congress-led UPA gets past the majority mark, Pawar will be with the coalition. In the event of neither UPA nor the NDA coming close to the mark, he will throw in his lot with the Third Front, provided he gets the top job or at least the deputy PM-ship. However, in the off-chance that the NDA looks most powerful but falls short, Pawar plans to take his flock over if promised something substantial. "This," a veteran Pawar analyst remarks, "is Pawar’s open-door policy that allows him to exercise any of the options before him."

For the record, though, Pawar chooses to be politically correct. He has been dismissive about aiming at the PM slot: "I won’t think on such lines unless we have the numbers. I know the ground realities." However, sources say that the secret and not-so-secret rendezvous with Shiv Sena leaders Bal and Uddhav Thackeray was part of a design to get support from fellow Marathis. In the Third Front, though, Pawar may not have it easy. There are many claimants for the top job, and the Left is not comfortable with him.

Click here to see the article in its standard web format