On May 15, 1999, at around 6 pm, a letter signed by Sharad Pawar and two others was delivered to Congress president Sonia Gandhi at 10, Janpath. The missive sought to quash her prime ministerial ambitions by raising the foreign-origin issue and signalled Pawar's decision to burn his boats with the Congress. He was formally ejected from the party five days later. It would not, however, prove to be a clean break.
Twenty years later, Pawar faces another Quo Vadis moment. His Nationalist Congress Party is in tatters ahead of the Maharashtra assembly polls and his alliance partner, the Congress, is not much better off. Defections have come thick and fast this year, the latest being that of Ganesh Naik. Seduced by Pawar from the Shiv Sena, he has now joined the BJP–not quite a homecoming, but close enough.
Pawar barely saved face in Lok Sabha 2019 by winning four seats to the Congress' one, although his grand-nephew lost–the first member of the clan to bite the dust, electorally speaking. The abysmal result, despite having roped in MNS firebrand Raj Thackeray to campaign for the NCP-Congress alliance, was a shock. Contrary to expectations, Thackeray not only failed to dent the Shiv Sena votebank, but could not even transfer his own votes to the NCP-Congress.
To be fair, Pawar had shouldered the burden of the campaign all by himself, because the Congress was in complete shambles. After the electoral debacle, the pace of defections accelerated and the Maratha strongman was 'Pawar-less' to stop them. The haemorrhage continues, relentlessly robbing the NCP of its life-force.
A couple of months ago, rumours of a proposed NCP merger with the Congress permeated Mumbai. Pawar, it seemed, had come full circle and was ready to rejoin the party he had quit twice in the past. He issued a denial, but the rumours persist, with some political analysts pointing out that the merger makes eminent sense, given that the parties are ideologically interchangeable, as are their cadres.
Does that imply that Pawar made a mistake by quitting the Congress in the first place, or did his error lie in forging a post-poll alliance with it, just months after he floated the NCP? The first question is irrelevant; Pawar's position in the Congress had become untenable thanks to the machinations of certain (now deceased) Congress leaders and he had little option but to quit.
The second question deserves closer examination. Pawar lost credibility when he joined hands with the Congress (thanks in part to deft mediation by the late Madhavrao Scindia), just six months after he had quit on the grounds that only an “Indian born of Indian soil” could head the government.
The opportunistic alliance paid off, in that the Congress-NCP came to power in Maharashtra in three successive elections. The opportunism was underlined when Pawar extended support to the Congress in 2004, regardless of the fact that the party was pitching for foreign-born Sonia as prime minister! He was transparently relieved when she did not take the job and said, post facto, that he had joined the Union Cabinet only because Manmohan Singh rather than Sonia Gandhi had become PM.
With no distinct agenda or ideology of its own, the NCP was reduced to being the Congress' junior partner in Maharashtra. Even when it won more seats than the Congress in 2004, the chief minister's post remained with the latter. Pawar's credibility further suffered when, having broken with the Congress in 2014, he offered outside support to the BJP, which was 22 MLAs short of a majority.
The trouble with marriages of convenience like that of the NCP and Congress is that they stymie growth. Parties in alliance will lay claim to the same seats in successive elections. There are some regions, therefore, where the party in alliance habitually does not contest, leaving them for its partner. The result of the 'non-competing clause' is that the party cannot expand in these regions. This is particularly true when the alliance partners are ideologically similar and draw support from the same social groups.
On the other hand, the risk of not forging an alliance is a division of votes. The fact that the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance ensured a consolidation of 'Hindutva' votes may have frightened the NCP into unequal partnerships with the Congress. In hindsight, it has paid a heavy price for 15 years of shared power, gradually becoming a moribund organisation.
Both the Congress and NCP suffered when they contested alone in 2014, the former far more than the latter. But being in alliance in Lok Sabha 2019 didn't help them either. In the last two Lok Sabha elections, the NCP did better than the Congress, prompting a near-equal seat-sharing arrangement in the forthcoming assembly elections.
Pawar may have decided to continue the alliance because he is too tired to reinvent the NCP, or is insecure about the political future of his heirs. But dishing out more of the same to voters can only accelerate the party's decline.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.