The tension between the ruling alliance partners in the State – the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena – continues to simmer, though at a subtle level. When the BJP emerged as the single largest party, the power equation with its poll ally, the Shiv Sena, changed. This despite the fact that the BJP is yet to consolidate its hold over the state, as was the case when it was governed by the Congress in the last five decades, without challenge. The Shiv Sena is yet to accept its position as number two within the ruling alliance, which creates some real issues for the BJP.
The Nationalist Congress Party set up by Sharad Pawar celebrates the 16th foundation day of the party in Patna this week; it will take stock of the political situation and review its survival strategy.
The party was formed by Pawar when he, along with P.A.Sangma and Tariq Anwar, were expelled from the Congress Party for raking up the foreign origin issue of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Though it was conceived to be an alternative national platform for disgruntled elements within the Congress, it remained a Maharashtra-centric party ever since it was formed.
Out of 16 years, the party has remained at the helm in the state for 15 years; simultaneously, it has enjoyed the trappings of power at the Centre by aligning with the Congress as a United Progressive Alliance (UPA) constituent. With the Congress being thrown out of power in Delhi as well as Maharashtra, the NCP now stands at a cross roads, not knowing where to turn –- to lean away from the Congress and inch towards the NDA or maintain equidistance from both the parties.
In fact, when the party was formed in a convention held in Nagpur, Pawar had announced its policy of keeping equidistance from the Congress as well as the BJP by announcing its secular and left of Centre policies. In its first fiercely contested election in 1999, the NCP had bitterly criticized the Congress as well as the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. However, he preferred to join hands with the Congress to provide a stable government in the state by keeping the saffron alliance out of power.
As Sonia Gandhi consolidated her grip over the Congress apparatus and helped it regain power in 2004, there were limits to NCP’s growth outside Maharashtra. Pawar maintained his high profile in Delhi by remaining a dependable ally of the Congress in Delhi but threw tantrums in Maharashtra, so that he could get a better deal in the state. Pawar also maintained close relations with 10 Janpath and used it to brow beat Congress chief ministers like Sushilkumar Shinde, Vilasrao Deshmukh, Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan.
Pawar tried to consolidate and broaden NCP’s base in Maharashtra but realised that there is a limit to its growth in the state as well, which is carved out between the four major parties. He had to heavily depend on the cooperative sector in the state with its solid rural base and drew strength from his support in the Maratha community. In the process, he developed a younger leadership in the party to keep in touch with the new generation of voter. He used anti-saffron rhetoric to secure support among OBCs in the state but failed to wean away the Dalit and the minority Muslim vote in the state.
He was one of the few UPA allies who had begun sensing the anti-Congress sentiment and began distancing himself from the Congress much ahead of the general elections held in 2014. After the stunning defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, it was almost certain that he would contest the assembly elections separately on his own but being a keen strategist he waited for the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance to snap and then within minutes announced his decision to break from the Congress and contest on his own.
But he did not expect such a stunning defeat with the Congress as well as the NCP getting less than 50 seats in the 288-member house and the BJP crossing the 100 mark, thanks to the Modi magic. Even the Shiv Sena, which emerged as a number two party, was able to win more seats than it ever had when Balasaheb Thackeray was around. Even while results were being announced, the NCP general secretary Praful Patel was the first to announce that the NCP could provide unconditional outside support to a stable government in the state. This move was a clear indication that Pawar wants to mend his relations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi by giving an edge to the BJP during its negotiations with the Shiv Sena. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis cruised through his first vote of confidence with the NCP providing it with indirect support.
But the NCP stands at a cross roads now and will mull over its strategy for survival in Patna. Pawar is expected to spell out his future course of action and shift in policies during the two-day national convention. Sangma has already parted ways with Pawar while Tariq Anwar remains loyal and hopes to contest the coming assembly elections later this year in Bihar.
Pawar has to spell out his views and chart his future relations with the Narendra Modi led NDA government. While every party has expressed its views about the Modi government on completion of one year in office, including the Shiv Sena which is BJP’s partner in Delhi as well as Mumbai, the NCP has maintained a stoic silence and refrained from expressing its views about the dispensation in Delhi. Thus far Pawar has been taking issue based stand and indirectly helping the Modi government in the Rajya Sabha while in Maharashtra he is maintaining a kind of pressure on Chief Minister Fadnavis, who is leaning more on the Shiv Sena for running the coalition government in the state.
No one expects Pawar to come out openly and support the NDA or the BJP in particular due to his pronounced secular credentials but that has not stopped him from helping Modi in tacit manner in political management since he has s personal rapport with both Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalitha.
Apart from pronouncing his national policy, Pawar also has to strike a balance within the party. Recently a new committee has been set up for the state under state NCP president Sunil Tatkare which indicates s generational change. Senior NCP leaders, including his nephew Ajit Pawar, Chhagan Bhujbaland Sunil Tatkare, are facing legal actions due to alleged involvement in various scams. This peculiar situation has kept the party under pressure. The party is trying to organize some agitations in the state against issues of toll collections on state roads and flyovers, farmers’ suicides and a new development plan for Mumbai, but it lacks vigour.
The Congress knows that unless there is some turbulence within the NCP, its ranks would swell; it has, therefore, been targeting the NCP for its tacit support to Modi after the last general elections. The Leader of the opposition in the state legislative assembly Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil is convinced that owing to close ties between the BJP and the NCP, voters will stay away from Pawar’s party.
Apart from the tight rope walk, to strike a balance between the BJP and the Congress, Pawar also has to take note of the simmering disquiet over political succession within his own party. Though there are no visible fault lines, the succession war between Ajit Pawar and party MP Supriya Sule may require some deft handling by resorting to collective leadership. Pawar will have to create some clarity in these sensitive issues in the Patna conclave.
Prakash Bal Joshi