May 30, 2020
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Pawar And Glory

The Maratha strongman bounces back but can he get the top job?

Pawar And Glory

THIS was the city where saffron flags flooded street corners, and hard-line Hindutva found a place in people's hearts. It was the city which gave the men in saffron 33 out of 34 seats in the last assembly election and wrote the agenda for change in Maharashtra. Bombay turned Mumbai and even a year ago in civic elections, saffron kept its colour. The Congress was thrown out of Mumbai's rich municipal corporation, and most of the state followed suit. A few warning signals that things may not be going the same way were misconstrued, and nobody, not even the victors, predicted such a triumphant return of the Congress.

In the run-up to the elections, the Congress was already beginning to get ambitious. The party had reserved all the major maidans in the city for Sonia Gandhi's election rally, but finally settled for the biggest of them all: Shivaji Park. Only a party that can muster a crowd of about two lakh chooses Shivaji Park. The last time the Congress managed such numbers and held a rally in Shivaji Park was December 1984. The rally was for Rajiv Gandhi at the height of the sympathy wave after his mother's assassination.

Shivaji Park has over the years been mostly monopolised by the Shiv Sena for party chief Bal Thackeray's mammoth rallies. But on February 22, as they arrived for Sonia Gandhi's rally in truckloads, waving the Congress flag, or in slogan-shouting groups spilling out of second class local train compartments, the Congress looked like the party it was in the state a long time ago. The crowd that gathered for Sonia looked like the ones which show up for Thackeray, but for the mix of colour at Shivaji Park: a sea of blue Republican Party of India (RPI) flags, the Samajwadi Party's (SP) red and green; and dominating the show—the Congress tricolour.

Behind the fizz of Sonia's crowds, what really brought the Congress in Maharashtra where it is—33 out of 48 seats plus an additional four to its RPI allies—is the strategy worked out by Sharad Pawar, helped by the anti-incumbency vote. He forged an electoral alliance with the SP and RPI. No small task as the SP didn't have an alliance with the Congress elsewhere.

The RPI was tougher—the Dalit leaders have never faced an election united. It took time to persuade a recalcitrant Prakash Ambedkar to pull in with the others. The results are a hundred per cent success for the Dalits—victory in all the four seats they contested—and for the Congress, help in winning many of its 33 seats: the Dalit vote has gone up to nearly 30 per cent in some constituencies. The hardest to win over has been the detractor in his backyard. But dinner and diplomacy—accommodating S.B. Chavan's son-in-law Bhaskarrao Patil Khatgaonkar in Nanded even if it meant replacing sitting MP Gangadhar Kuntoorkar, or backing Sudhakarrao Naik to victory in Washim—paid off.

Disunity was the main cause of the Congress losing the state in the first place. In 1995, rebel candidates opposed party nominees in nearly 200 constituencies. Forty-two were elected as Independents and in another 54 seats they caused the defeat of Congress candidates, pushing the party out of office.

This time, as Pawar likes to say, he prepared for the examination well in advance. By the time the competition set out and his official schedule beginning on February 4 was released by the party, Pawar was well into a "second revision". Then Sonia Gandhi arrived, propping up Pawar's prospects.

The results uprooted even stalwarts. BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan lost to Gurudas Kamat of the Congress in Mumbai Northeast despite the fact that the constituency is represented by two ministers (one BJP and one Sena) and the city BJP president. Dalits account for nearly 25 per cent of the 19.4 lakh electorate here. Last July, 11 Dalits were killed in police firing in this constituency. The rage and unity of Dalit leaders consolidated their vote.

 "Especially after this incident Dalits are dead against them. We feel the Sena-BJP alliance is not ours and not for us," says RPI leader Ramdas Athavale. Athavale cost Kamat his seat in 1996, when he stood in Mumbai Northeast polling 2.23 lakh votes. This time, backed by the Congress and SP, he was one of the four Dalits who won.

AMONG other prominent losers was former union minister Suresh Kalmadi. The man synonymous with Pune fell out with Pawar and contested as an Independent backed by the Sena and the BJP. He lost to little known Vithal Tupe of the Congress by over 93,000 votes as Pawar made it a prestige issue to defeat Kalmadi and retain the seats in his home district. Strategy and success have placed Pawar at the top of the heap and made him the chief contender for the prime minister's job among Congress leaders.

It is Pawar's second major bid for the top post. In 1991, the campaign after Rajiv Gandhi's death projected Pawar as the next PM, appealing to Maharashtra's "asmita" (pride). The Congress then won 38 seats, but Pawar lost face thanks to the enthusiasm of colleagues like Kalmadi who made a noisy bid for the PM's chair on his behalf. This time Pawar has been preparing ground carefully: "My efforts will be to see that secular forces will form the government.... The party with the most seats will lead." And though he says that the "leadership issue will be discussed and decided by the party", he is a top contender because his state has given the Congress its best results. And more so because he has been the architect of his party's victory.

Backing Pawar is a large group of MPs from Maharashtra—37. "We are united.We are all with him," says Gurudas Kamat. A closer examination of those elected would reduce that tally a bit: the RPI MPs will support him, but while most of the freshly elected Congress MPs—33—are loyalists, a few don't belong to the core group. Bhaskarrao Khatgaonkar (Nanded) is S.B. Chavan's son-in-law; Sandipan Thorat (Pandharpur) and Naresh Pugalia (Chan-drapur) are close to Sitaram Kesri; Mukul Wasnik (Buldhana) and Chitralekha Raje Bhosle (Ramtek) are not in the core group, nor is Vilas Muttemwar (Nagpur) though his differences with Pawar have been resolved.

Then there is Pawar's other constituency—ties that cut across the United Front and out of it, whether it is Dr Farooq Abdullah who is part of the UF or Chandra Shekhar beyond it. "The outside resistance to him is within the Congress," observes a local Janata Dal leader.

In Maharashtra, his victory has left the state government on uncertain ground. Soon after the last results were known—that included defeat in Mumbai North-Central where his constituency, Dadar, falls—Chief Minister Manohar Joshi visited Thackeray and handed in a letter seeking permission to resign. That Thackeray dumped the letter saves Joshi for the moment, but it does not make his case any easier.

THOUGH Pawar has reiterated that there is no intention of dismissing the state government if the Congress takes over at the Centre, there is the prospect of party rebels—Independent MLAs who support the state government—returning to the fold, and splits in both the BJP and Sena. Thackeray says this is the only way the government would fall, if it does. "I see no possibility of the party breaking or of dismissal. Before the election he (Pawar) said if the Congress takes over we would be dismissed. Now he is not saying so as he knows we will gain sympathy," says Joshi.

The Sena which won six seats, down from 15 in 1996, and the BJP which won four seats (down from 18 in 1996) deny the "anti-establishment" factor. But some party leaders attribute the loss to the excesses of the Thackeray family, and the Sena chief's recent softening towards Muslims which lost him the hardline Hindu vote.

Joshi, however, offers four reasons for the poll performance: the consolidation of RPI and SP votes; unity in the Congress; a catalytic effect in Sonia's state rallies and the fact that the results of some of the major projects started by the ruling alliance will take a while to materialise. "Like our major drinking water projects, over the next two years, these will bear fruit and people will certainly give us a mandate again."

 The election results have initiated, as one party MP puts it, "a massive clean-up process". After meetings with the BJP, a reshuffle is on the cards and some ministers may be dropped. "This was on the cards earlier, we couldn't do anything because of the polls. But there will be no major changes," says Joshi. His party has been adamant in its dismissal of the anti-establishment factor, backing its stand with statistics: in 18 of the constituencies it contested, Sena candidates have actually polled more votes than they did in 1996. But all the argument will not help re-paint a picture, where a third of the electorate—Dalits and minorities—has forsaken the saffron fold.

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