Mr. Sharad Pawar is not like Miss Mamata Banerjee. He is neither mercurial nor unpredictable. He is focused, measured and unflappable. So how might one read his latest move? Along with his party colleague Mr. Praful Patel he boycotted a cabinet meeting. According to media reports this was followed up by resignation letters from both cabinet ministers. The proffered reason for Mr. Pawar’s protest is that he is displeased for having been denied the number two slot in the cabinet handed over to Mr. AK Antony after the exit of Mr. Pranab Mukherjee. Mr. Pawar reportedly is miffed by other acts of the Congress related to its alliance partners that were arrogant and high handed. This seems to be the text of his political protest.
But there is a sub-text which is more significant. It is no secret that Mr. Antony is a favourite of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Undoubtedly his elevation to the number two position was inspired by Mrs. Gandhi. To undo that decision would in effect be a rebuff for Mrs. Gandhi. And that brings one to the deeper and hidden aspect of Mr. Pawar’s move. Headquartered in the financial capital of India Mr. Pawar more than most politicians perhaps is sensitive to the sentiments of corporate circles. And the recent messages from both the domestic and international corporate worlds could not have been more clear and explicit.
London’s The Economist set the ball rolling by reiterating the oft made comment in India that the Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh arrangement of shared responsibility had resulted in paralyzed governance. This was followed by the Time cover story from the US which described Dr. Singh as an underachiever and urged him to reboot the economy. To cap it all there appeared the report in London’s The Independent daily newspaper which described the Indian Prime Minister as Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s poodle. That these sentiments are shared by an increasingly desperate Indian business community becomes clear from the letter reportedly written by Mr. Ratan Tata to the Prime Minister. He has defended the Prime Minister against his critics but at the same time has urged him to get cracking and start delivering.
Indeed the thrust of all the criticism both domestic and foreign recently leveled against the Prime Minister seems not to be to attack him as much as to urge him to act. Opposition leaders and media have misread the intention of the foreign critics of the Prime Minister in the same way that they misread the remarks Mr. Salman Khurshid made regarding Mr. Rahul Gandhi. Mr. Khurshid’s reference to Mr. Gandhi’s ‘cameo role’ was not intended to ridicule him but to urge him on to a more active role. Mr. Pawar’s resignation threat therefore may be seen as an ultimatum to the Prime Minister to step up and act as he should instead of being remote controlled by the National Advisory Council led by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. There is a strong vested interest in both the domestic and foreign corporate worlds for India’s economy to resume performance. Mr. Pawar’s threat is designed to achieve that. This, then is Mr. Pawar’s Plan-A.
Much will depend upon the Prime Minister and Mrs. Gandhi whether this ultimatum will work. Will the PM agree to replace Mr. Antony from the number two slot in the cabinet despite Mrs. Gandhi’s known preference? More important, will Mrs. Gandhi read the writing on the wall and comply with this decision that will initiate a far reaching change regarding her role in the government? This is what Mr. Pawar and the corporate world will want to happen. If not, Mr. Pawar could fall back on his Plan-B.
Mr. Pawar’s Plan-B would entail toppling the government and going in for a mid-term poll as early as this year itself. The timing for an early mid-term poll could not be more propitious for Mr. Pawar. The Shiv Sena factions have come together in his home state. The BJP’s Maharashtra unit and the BJP president Mr. Nitin Gadkari acknowledge Mr. Pawar’s pre-eminence in the state. Mr. Bal Thackeray in his advanced years would not challenge Mr. Pawar’s leadership of a united front in Maharashtra. In short, in the event of a mid-term poll the prospects of a united opposition front led by Mr. Pawar to sweep the election are very strong.
The rosy prospects for Mr. Pawar do not end there. Of all the opposition leaders Mr. Pawar more than the rest has cordial relations with almost all the regional leaders. His relations with Miss Jayalalitha, Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mr. Badal and the others have been consolidated through the years by close interaction. He is best placed to forge a credible New Front that could focus on federalism and better governance. A mid-term poll offers such dazzling prospects for the regional combine that Mr. Pawar might be tempted to opt for Plan-B over Plan-A even if the Congress succumbs to his ultimatum.
The critical economical situation and the risk of a fatal dislocation that could permanently mar the economy would inhibit the corporate sector from supporting an immediate mid-term poll. To revive reforms through the existing government would undoubtedly be safer.
All this should be kept in the mind by the Prime Minister and Mrs. Gandhi before they respond to Mr. Pawar’s move. Right now the Congress is engaged in charting the new role for Mr. Rahul Gandhi. Let the party do that by all means. But Congress leaders would be well advised at the same time to spare serious and urgent thought to what its UPA allies are demanding.