By G.S. Bhargava
Whether Sharad Pawar has eaten the humble pie in the tussle for leadership of the coalition government in Maharashtra or whether he staged a strategic retreat before receiving more egg on his face is a matter of opinion. He was on a strong political?even moral?ground when he claimed the chief ministership for his Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The NCP has won 71 seats as against the Congress party's69. So according to the 1999 ?formula?, as it is called, the NCP should head the coalition government.
In 1999, the Congress got the post by virtue of being the larger party. In the latest election, reinforcing the NCP position in its percentage of seats won?71 out of 124 seats contested?it works out to 57.3 per cent as against only 44 per cent in the case of the Congress party, which had contested 157 seats to win 69.
On the opposite side while the BJP managed to retain its 1999 tally, its partner, the Shiv Sena, fared badly bringing down the score of the combination. It meant a change from a marginal win to defeat. Apparen-tly, the infighting in the Shiv Sena is the villain of the piece. In a centralised establishment like the Shiv Sena, with its supremo running the party by remote control, it proved the kiss of death. It worked as long as the party was on a wining spree but once the tide turned, there has been disaster.
Not that the Congress party has a democratic and responsible internal set-up. Nehru was furious when the Anglo-Indian news-papers like The Statesman likened the party leader-ship to the Nazi high command because Gandhiji called the shots in its decision-making system, without even being a ?four-anna member? of the organisation. Today, ironically, Congress party functionaries and others revel in calling Sonia Gandhi the ?high command?!
First, honed by Indira Gandhi for three decades, the Congress party or Congress (Indira) never had organisational elections from its inception in 1978 until P.V. Narasimha Rao gingerly tried to go in for them, in 1991. He was only partially successful because at the Tirupati session of the AICC that year, Arjun Singh and Pawar made him beat a retreat in respect of having an elected leadership.
Secondly, Indira Gandhi perfected the art of playing one faction against another in the resultant faction-ridden party. She had a faction of her own, which, as the vehicle to power, attracted members or those calling themselves members because there was no formal membership. Bal Thackeray has not been able to do it painlessly. As for Pawar, he is a novice.
By the way, as the inheritor of Yeshwantrao Chavan'smantle of Maratha strongman, Pawar has been in and out of the Congress more than once. During the Janata period in 1977-79 when Morarji Desai was Prime Minister and Chavan was heading the anti-Indira Congress faction, he seemed to be close to the Janata although both the Socialists and the Jan Sangh in Maharashtra were inimical to him. Then he joined the Congress party in Rajiv'stime. In 1999, along with P.K. Sangma and a few others, Pawar was thrown out of the Congress party for questioning Sonia Gandhi'sclaim to the leadership of the party while being of foreign origin.
The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) was formed then.
Confusion among the voters over his new election symbol?timepiece?cost Pawar dear in that year'sAssembly election and in the Lok Sabha polls subsequently. While Sangma fared well in the northeast, Pawar did not click even on his home ground. The result was his equivocal attitude to the issue of Sonia Gandhi'sforeign origin. Even during the campaign for the recent Maharashtra Assembly, there was Pawar'scharacteristic flip-flop. In one breath, he would say Sonia Gandhi'sforeign origin was an issue and in another, he would assert she was an Indian!
Similarly, while bargaining for the top post for his NCP in the state government he threatened, more than once, if denied the position, the NCP would support the Congress government from outside.
Ultimately he caved in when Sonia Gandhi offered the NCP, besides deputy chief ministership, two additional key portfolios. He could not restrain his followers from falling for it without making a clean break with the Congress party at the national level as well. In 1991, when he threatened to contest the leadership of the Congress parliamentary party against P.V. Narasimha Rao, he got the sop of defence ministership. His role in Mumbai during the post-Ayodhya inter-communal violence in the western metropolis was as disastrous as Narasimha Rao'sin saving the historic Babri structure.
Sonia Gandhi'sreason for denying Pawar'sdue of chief ministership for his NCP, even at the cost of keeping the matter hanging for eleven days, could be that the quick-change artist might ditch the party and opt for a government of his own with the BJP?more than the Shiv Sena?tolerating it. So the Congress party had gone to the ridiculous length of counting CPI (M) legislators as its own because it had left some seats for the party in the face of Harkishan Singh Surjit disputing the claim. The Congress party also had no qualms in counting among its associate members NCP rebels against whom it has fought in the election!
In short, the new coalition dharma is mutual mistrust and one-upmanship.