FIRST, THE quotable quotes. “Whether Indiraji, Rajiv or Soniaji, all Gandhis consider the Congress their family fiefdom.”
“…I knew that I was a strong contender but the Gandhi family was not about to let someone with an independent mind get to the Prime Minister’s job.”
“The reason why PV Narasimha Rao’s exceptional contribution to the nation’s progress wasn’t applauded was probably due to the fact that he, well, didn’t belong to the Gandhi family”.
And the clincher: “I had intentionally used the word ‘jholawallas’ to describe the NAC (National Advisory Council) members so that Sonia Gandhi would know the kind of people she had chosen as advisers.”
Now, pause and think: which political party chief has the chutzpah to utter such words—as if he doesn’t care two hoots about the consequences—and yet remain a ‘valued ally’ (in Sonia’s own words as late as last month) of the Congress? No prizes for guessing it right. It’s the one and only Sharad Pawar, the founder of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
Pawar’s memoir, On My Terms, seeks to affirm that democracy is essentially the government “of the people, by the people and for the people”, as former US president Abraham Lincoln had put it. Any attempt at defiling this cardinal principle and confining it to a dynastic or communitarian —or even an ideological—prism has serious consequences. So it’s only fair to argue that while the Congress and Left are already paying the price, a similar fate of political deterioration awaits the BJP if it gives in to the whims of hardline Right-wing elements.
As for Pawar, beneath the overt display of such audacity lies the supreme confidence of a politician who derives strength from his mass support (especially in his home state of Maharashtra), assiduously built through tremendous networking over the years. No wonder, the man, who became one of the country’s youngest chief ministers at just 38 years of age, has never lost an election. Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls him an astute judge of the winds of change in politics. Pawar is, indeed, powerful; it hardly matters if he is in or out of power. And, he knows it.
But then, he was also a wounded Congressman, who felt let down by the party’s overt exhibition of subservience to one family. If ambition called for a heavy price in politics, Pawar paid it at every stage. Yet he could never be prime minister because the dynasty that lent ears to only servile loyalists didn’t want a strong person with an ‘independent mind’ to occupy the high post.
A self-confessed Congressman at heart even today, Pawar’s disenchantment with the dynasty started with the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi in 1975. It worsened when Indira sacked the Pawar-led Progressive Democratic Front (PDF) government in the state because he refused to dump his mentor YB Chauhan—then a known critic of Indira’s autocratic style—and join hands with her son Sanjay Gandhi.
Even Rajiv’s initial attitude towards him wasn’t that good. In 1986, when the Congress (S), a faction of the old national party of which Pawar was a part, decided to merge with the Congress (I) on the invitation of Rajiv at a rally in Maharashtra, the late prime minister didn’t even mention Pawar’s name in his welcome speech.
While most facts in the memoir have been much discussed in public, they assume wider connotations and promise greater implication when told from Pawar’s perspective. Despite his reservations about certain aspects of Rajiv’s functioning, Pawar gives him credit for his keenness to adopt science and technology.
However, the Gandhi Pawar is most critical about is Sonia, with whom he shared a rather ‘uneasy equation’ in the first few years. But he also acknowledges that Sonia didn’t “in any way interfere in my ministerial work” in the 10 years he spent as agriculture minister in the UPA government.
Pawar, however, seems to have been affected by the fact that Sonia heeded his detractors and didn’t back him for the post of prime minister in 1991 despite his stature as a strong leader. Instead, she chose to bring back Narasimha Rao even when the latter had withdrawn from mainstream politics before the election, citing health issues. The reason: Pawar’s critics told Sonia that since the Maratha leader was young, he could “hold the reins for a long time”. Such a scenario “will harm the interests of the first family”, they argued.
During the 12th Lok Sabha, Pawar and Sonia managed a ‘working relationship’ and stuck to their respective turfs, but the arrangement proved to be shortlived. Pawar, as the leader of Lok Sabha, prepared a list of Congress nominees for various parliamentary committees after getting party president Sonia’s consent. But the next day, then speaker GMC Balayogi informed him that Congress chief whip
PJ Kurien had submitted a different list of nominees (the latter said he did so at Sonia’s behest). Pawar approached Sonia to ask Kurien to withdraw the list, to which she replied calmly, “You may withdraw your list”. Pawar was shaken by what he thought was a deliberate ploy to insult him. Months later, just before the next elections, Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar were suspended from the party for having a different opinion from the loyalists about Sonia’s ‘foreign origin’ issue. This paved the way for the birth of the NCP.
Through several anecdotes, Pawar offers a peek into a sort of informal history of Indian politics of the time and the Gandhis’ dismissive attitude towards eminent leaders. Just a few months after extending support to the Chandra Shekhar-led government, Congress leaders tried to stall Parliament proceedings, claiming Rajiv was being spied on by two constables posted outside his house.
Hurt by such frivolous allegations, Chandra Shekhar sent his resignation to the President. This put the Congress in a fix, as the party just wanted to humiliate him, keeping him in power until it was fully geared up for the next election. So Pawar was sent to placate Chandra Shekhar and request him to withdraw his resignation. A furious Chandra Shekhar asked Pawar, “Has that fellow (Rajiv) asked you to call on me?…. Does the Congress really believe that I would depute constables to snoop on him?” This was followed by a curt sentence, duly characteristic of him, “Go back and tell him Chandra Shekhar doesn’t change his mind three times a day.”
Although the memoir doesn’t elaborate with a plethora of details various allegations against Pawar, he seems to have tried to address some of them in certain depth, from his alleged links with underworld don Dawood Ibrahim to corruption. But he deftly seeks to scotch wild allegations, saying these are propaganda by leaders who were scared of his growing political clout and some media outlets dished out such reports as “sensationalising the allegations would fetch them more readers”.
Pawar also speaks about how he was drawn to The Indian Express founder Ramnath Goenka (RNG) for the latter’s crusade against Emergency. “Chatting with RNG was a lively experience. He had very strong views on most issues and individuals.”
Pawar also talks about his friend, businessman Nusli Wadia. “We remember fondly our chat sessions at Ramnath Goenka’s Mumbai penthouse where Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also an occasional visitor.”
Despite his eulogy of Narasimha Rao as an administrator, Pawar paints a sorry figure of the late prime minister for his inept handling of the Babri Masjid demolition. Rao ignored Pawar’s advice to deploy the army at the disputed site to prevent any risks of demolition. This is because Rao was gullible enough to believe in the assurances of saffron leaders, and also because he feared any casualties from such a military action might trigger widespread violence across the country. Nevertheless, as defence minister, he had ordered the videography of the site by the army, and he recalled how Rao sat through the meeting where the tapes were played out as if in a daze.
The memoir, predictably, is more about Pawar the politician, than Pawar the family man. The ninth of 11 children in a middle-class Maharashtrian family, Pawar has come a long way from selling vegetables in the market, to having power lunches with the who’s who of Indian and global politics. His mother, a dedicated social worker with socialist leanings, had a tremendous influence on him.
With its evocative title, the memoir makes for a compelling case for considerable internal democracy within each political party, where leadership qualities are chosen over sycophancy and problems are resolved through enlightened discussions. Loyalty is a necessary virtue in politics, but it’s not a substitute for excellence in administration. Who knows it better than Pawar? But then, it would also be interesting to see how Pawar’s own successor in the NCP is chosen (his daughter Surpiya and nephew Ajit Pawar are believed to be the top contenders). Meanwhile, as a powerful leader with friends across parties, Pawar shouldn’t be grudged—if rumours are true—for eyeing the last supper of his active political career at Rashtrapati Bhavan.