Sonia would go on, within days, to name Manmohan Singh as the prime minister, who would in turn, be re-elected to a second term.
The overnight coup that caught Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar napping on Friday night as the BJP’s Machiavellian Amit Shah put his plan into play, isn’t the first time that Pawar has been outmanouevred, outflanked or outsmarted.
In his book, On My Terms: From the Grassroots and Corridors of Power, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar, a rising star in the Congress of the early nineties, squarely places the blame on Congress president Sonia Gandhi for listening to “self-styled loyalists” in the Congress, for depriving him of prime ministership. These were the backroom boys who had called the shots in the party through the Rajiv and Indira years.
The book — released in December 2015, some 24 years after the assassination of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991 — homes in on the time when the leadership stakes were thrown wide open after the recently widowed Sonia Gandhi, despite pressure from many of Rajiv's confidantes, showed little or no appetite in taking the top job; it would have been hers for the taking.
Either way, it saw a number of contenders including the Madhya Pradesh leader Arjun Singh throwing his hat into the ring. But it was the powerful young leader from Maharashtra, the 52-year-old Pawar, who was clearly leading the fray. He was generating the most buzz with his cause being actively promoted by his comrade in arms and Pune moneybags, Suresh Kalmadi.
In the book, Mr Pawar names Messrs Arjun Singh, M.L. Fotedar, R.K. Dhawan and V. George as the men who were behind the move to block him from being named as leader of the Congress party, which would have automatically seen him becoming prime minister. In fact, it wasn’t Arjun Singh & Co at all who stopped Pawar from being picked for the top job. While they may have whispered in Sonia’s ears about the dangers posed to the Gandhi dynasty by a younger man taking the top post, and which may have seen her look around for an older and more experienced hand, there were other forces at work.
Sometime in late June after election results were announced, weeks after Rajiv’s assassination, Suresh Kalmadi, prime mover behind the “Pawar for Prime Minister” campaign, was already hosting a grand Congress victory party, to which all of Delhi had gravitated. Anybody who was anybody was there. Winners and losers, wannabes and, of course, journalists.
Mr Kalmadi, whom one had badgered with call after call for access to Mr Pawar once one had heard he was a contender, had said he would arrange an interview with the “prime-minister-designate” that very night. And when Sharad Pawar, arrived, flanked by armed guards, toting Uzi machine guns, exuding confidence and looking every inch the leader of the new India, he was followed by a surprise visitor, an old friend from Karnataka.
Mr Gundu Rao, who had served as chief minister of the southern state in the early eighties, guffawed out loud when I told him what I was doing there. Offering to take me to the house where “everything that should happen will happen”, he said, “Take it from me, Sharad Pawar is not going to be prime minister, don’t even bother interviewing him.”
Barely an hour later, we were sitting in the home of a man who cannot be named, but who, as a senior member of the outgoing Chandra Shekhar government, was privy to information on every politician. As the night progressed, he would make several calls to various powerbrokers on the way forward, including the godman Chandraswami. His final call was to Mr Kalmadi’s home on his landline when he demanded that Mr Pawar come on the line.
I sat and watched as the man, slowly and methodically destroyed Mr Pawar’s chances of ever becoming prime minister of the country. He told Sharad Pawar that he must withdraw his candidature that very night or face the embarassment of inside secrets spilling out as he read out shocking details of deals from file after file.
This man and the late Chandraswami had already homed in on their candidate for prime minister — P.V. Narasimha Rao.
That very night, Mr Pawar announced he was withdrawing his candidature, and by the next morning, the party named Narasimha Rao as their prime ministerial candidate. Mr Pawar would go on to become the defence minister in the Narasimha Rao government. But few know how close he came to leading the post-Gandhi Congress government or who was really responsible for pulling the rug from under him. Mr Pawar himself would be hesitant about ever calling out his nemesis, who continues, to this day, to be one of the Congress party’s most virulent critics.
Mr Pawar’s second bid to become prime minister went awry when he launched a campaign against Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origins after she helmed the party’s victory and came close to taking over, and then baulked at moving into Race Course Road as the country resonated to Pawar's “anti-foreigner at the helm” campaign. Sonia would go on, within days, to name Manmohan Singh as the prime minister, who would in turn, be re-elected to a second term.
But for Mr Pawar this would be a bigger miscalculation than the ’91 misread. He had come to believe that the rhetoric of hate that he had spun into a national narrative would power him to the prime ministership. In June 1999, Mr Pawar had split the Congress and formed the NCP. It was this rump party that would play no more than a supporting role in Maharashtra and national politics until he grabbed the initiative in the 2019 state polls, and came within kissing distance of power.
Sharad Pawar, always on the wrong side of history?