Maha power politics and the 1978 Pawar model

Over the years, to paraphrase Tacitus, politics accommodated itself as was advantageous.

Published: 09th July 2023 12:45 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th July 2023 09:59 AM   |  A+A-

A hoarding bearing a photo of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar put up at the venue of the meeting of Ajit Pawar-led NCP, in Mumbai, Wednesday, July 5, 2023. (Photo | PTI)

This week marks 45 years of the emergence of a power-sharing model in India’s political landscape. The model parked ideological differences, normalised the idea of give and take and validated the old cliché that politics is the art of the possible.

The dawn of the model merits a flashback. In 1978, Congress (U) led by Y B Chavan and Congress (I) by Indira Gandhi fought the Maharashtra polls separately.  Neither won a majority, yet, despite animosities, joined to form the government under Vasantdada Patil.  On July 12, Sharad Pawar who was home minister quit the government, walked away with 40 MLAs, split his mentor’s party and in six days crafted a coalition of six parties to become the youngest chief minister on July 18.

Irony is a permanent invitee in India’s politics. Last week, Ajit Pawar split the NCP, the party formed by his uncle and mentor Sharad Pawar, claimed to have 40 MLAs with him – exactly the number his uncle had in 1978 – and joined hands with the BJP and the Shinde Sena to be the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra. The cryptic buzz in political circles is that 'Ajit did a Pawar' to his mentor. On the flip side, sceptics believe Ajit Pawar’s mutiny has the blessings of Sharad Pawar just as in 1978 it was believed that Pawar toppled Vasantdada on Chavan’s directions.  Truth has many versions in Maharashtra politics and is frequently in suspended animation!

July seems to be an eventful month in the Pawar calendar. In July 1986, Sharad Pawar was brought back to the Congress fold by Rajiv Gandhi. The void left by the merger of Congress (S) into Congress (I) created room for a new muscular brand of politics led by Shiv Sena and the BJP. This alliance came together on the broad plank of Hindutva in 1989. Pramod Mahajan, who was one of the architects of the alliance (with Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray), was also a key player in the crafting of the 1978 model.

The rhetoric of Hindutva was scaffolded by realpolitik. The contours of the 1978 model informed the drafting of the terms of engagement of the saffron alliance – in opposition in 1991 and in power in 1995. The power sharing agreement – the posts of chief minister and speaker, the number of cabinet posts and heads of state commissions – was defined by numerical strength in the house.

Cut to 1999. Sharad Pawar quit the Indian National Congress citing Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin as the issue and formed the Nationalist Congress Party. In the assembly elections which followed neither the saffron alliance nor the Congress siblings, who fought separately, bagged a majority. Notwithstanding the rhetoric through the campaign, the NCP and Congress parked their ideological differences and formed an alliance

Power sharing had evolved following many iterations of the 1978 model. The balance of power was calibrated by checks  designed in 1995– the ministries of home, finance, power and PWD went to the second partner. Numerical strength of parties determined who got what -- except in 2004 when NCP ceded the post of CM to Congress despite winning more seats, which Ajit Pawar (and Devendra Fadnavis) hinted was to thwart his ambitions.

Over the years, to paraphrase Tacitus, politics accommodated itself as was advantageous.  The 1978 Model blended in new customs and installed precedents. There are many avatars, but the essence of expediency is intact. Editions of the model have found their way into the playbook of alliances where core differences were parked in abeyance in the quest for power – most vividly illustrated by the multiple alliances and pivots by Nitish Kumar in Bihar.

Power is the adrenalin of politics and compromise the art of manoeuvring to stay in power, abandoning what should be for what is. Often former chief ministers accept to be just ministers – even reporting to those who reported to them. The Pawar cabinet of 1978 included S B Chavan who was the chief minister in the emergency years between 1975 and 1977. Narayan Rane, Chief Minister in 1999, joined Congress and was minister in the Prithviraj Chavan cabinet.

In 2019, Sharad Pawar recast the 1978 model and forged an unlikely alliance between the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress. The new formation found Ashok Chavan, Chief Minister between 2008 and 2010 serving as minister under Uddhav Thackeray.  In June 2022, Eknath Shinde split the Shiv Sena and entered into an alliance with the BJP. The new dispensation found former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis serving as deputy to Shinde who was once a minister under him.

Don’t rule out new twists and turns in the script. The alliance is sealing a three- way seat share to fight the next general and assembly elections together. Ajit Pawar said that his NCP would fight 13 to 15 Lok Sabha seats and 90 assembly seats. He also declared that he wants to be chief minister- and speculation is rife that this could happen in August. Electors vote for one government and get three instead! This may just be the dawn of a new power model!

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