Shikha Mukerjee | Diversity vs homogeneity, as Pawar play rocks Maha

The Asian Age.  | Shikha Mukerjee

Opinion, Columnists

The bottom line seems to be regardless of how many MLAs Ajit Pawar can parade at his meeting, he cannot afford to supplant Sharad Pawar.

NCP President Sharad Pawar (PTI)

The difference between the Dada Saheb, that is Sharad Pawar, and Ajit Dada Pawar is the difference between the original and a smudgy copy. Malefactor Ajit Pawar, along with other malcontents like Chhagan Bhujbal, Sunil Tatkare, Praful Patel and some others, may have split the Nationalist Congress Party, but the mutineers dare not discard Sharad Pawar, who looms large over Maharashtra politics.

The stage of the rebels’ much-awaited meeting to demonstrate their command over the majority of 53 NCP MLAs in the Maharashtra Assembly was dominated by a huge banner with Sharad Pawar’s image presiding over the event. Clearly, the mutineers don’t dare to forswear their allegiance to the legendary leader, because that would probably be politically suicidal.

The bottom line seems to be regardless of how many MLAs Ajit Pawar can parade at his meeting, he cannot afford to supplant Sharad Pawar. That is the admission of a loser. So too is the justification that their “robbery”, as Sharad Pawar termed it, or “treachery”, as other leaders have done, the mutiny is not a betrayal, but in line with the undivided NCP’s actions in joining forces with the Congress and then forming an alliance with the Shiv Sena. In other words, the mutineers need Sharad Pawar to wash away the stigma of betraying the legendary leader.

By taking on Maharashtra’s tallest leader and NCP’s founder, who is also India’s eldest statesman, the BJP may have got more than it bargained for. Sharad Pawar is a cancer survivor who is pushing 83. But he is neither down nor is he out. Launching a grudge match against the Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thacekery for abandoning the National Democratic Alliance in 2019 by seducing Eknath Shinde and a majority of Shiv Sena MLAs is entirely different from splitting the NCP.

While there are noises emanating from Bihar via Sushil Kumar Modi to indicate that Nitish Kumar and the Janata Dal (United) could be the next location for version 2.0 of Operation Lotus and in Karnataka, B.S. Yediyurappa and H.D. Kumaraswami are predicting that there will be a split in the Congress and the downfall of the party, the BJP needs to do a rethink. Is it politically wise to surrender the high moral ground for the dubious pleasure of winning a grudge match against Sharad Pawar? The way Sharad Pawar had responded to the crisis within his party suggests that he has chosen to identify the BJP as the unprincipled attacker, by keeping the doors of his establishment open for rebels to return as prodigals.

If as the noises made by Sushil Modi from Bihar and B.S. Yediyurappa and H.D. Kumaraswami in Karnataka are portents of the BJP’s plans to extend its domain by splitting and toppling the ruling parties in the two states, it may be Nitish Kumar’s and Mallikarjun Kharge’s best counter strategy to claim the high moral ground and brand the BJP as vengeful aggressors. That would put the BJP in the uncomfortable position of explaining why it has an insatiable appetite for promoting the agenda of one leader-one party-one nation and its concomitant double/triple engine sarkar, months before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Pollsters and pundits have confirmed that Narendra Modi is India’s most popular leader and the most recognisable face not only within the country but is large parts of the world. As the leader with the highest popularity ratings, why does he and the BJP need to engage in unsavoury split-and-topple politics, less than 300 days away from a general election where the expectation is that Mr Modi will win a third term?

The targeting of Sharad Pawar, Nitish Kumar and Mallikarjun Kharge, who is not only the Congress president but also Karnataka’s best-known politician, indicates that the BJP is uneasy about the power of the collective leadership of the Opposition, which is intent on forming an alliance to fight and defeat the Sangh Parivar. The BJP has been tarred for unleashing a series of raids and investigations by the investigative “agencies” -- ED, CBI, NIA, I-T, DRI, CBDT -- against ruling parties in West Bengal, National Capital Territory of Delhi, Telangana and Tamil Nadu, where Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, K. Chandrashekhar Rao and M.K. Stalin are powerful and influential leaders.

Politics is a dynamic process. By giving itself a single-point agenda of cobbling together higher vote shares in Opposition-ruled states by splitting regional parties and encouraging defections ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is revealing its need to exercise abundant caution by creating new equations to guarantee its victory. The BJP’s toppling-defections game then becomes a sort of Ponzi scheme, to invent ways of maintaining the high returns it has grown accustomed to after the first Narendra Modi victory in 2014. Before venturing into Bihar or Karnataka or splitting the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh in preparation for the 2024 Lok Sabha election, it may be wise politics to find out what voters think in states like Madhya Pradesh, which goes to the polls later this year.

Voters in Karnataka rejected the BJP and delivered an emphatic mandate to the Congress in the Assembly. Voters in Madhya Pradesh may do the same, because they may feel the Kamal Nath government was ousted in 2020 after the BJP engineered defections. To believe that voters across India, from Maharashtra to Bihar and Tamil Nadu, will choose Mr Modi and the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, even if they reject the party and its leader in the state polls, is a risky generalisation. The masterminds of 6A Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg in New Delhi should not assume that the politics of split-defection-topple has unconditional voter support everywhere.

The events in Maharashtra throw up several questions and not a few challenges, not for the anti-BJP Opposition, comprising mostly regional and small parties, but for the BJP. Is there an alternative to Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra politics? There is no one, not in the BJP, not in the Congress, not in the Shiv Sena, who comes even close. The NCP split has lifted his political significance, in national politics, to an entirely different level, making him a formidable challenger.

After the news broke, Sharad Pawar ‘s response was masterly. He travelled to Karad and then Satara to pay his respects to his mentors Y.B. Chavan and Appasaheb Bhaurao Patil, a reformer and political heavyweight. In doing so he demonstrated his extraordinary connect with the masses. Corny as this may sound, Sharad Pawar’s actions spoke louder than words; the politics of manipulation and gas lighting has to be certified by voters to gain legitimacy. As an Opposition leader, Sharad Pawar has it.