Dhaka, Bangladesh
Maharashtra polls '19 is perhaps Sharad Pawar's finest hour

Maharashtra polls '19 is perhaps Sharad Pawar's finest hour

By By Abhay Vaidya

One of the lasting images of campaigning in the run-up to the 2019 assembly elections in Maharashtra was a drenched Sharad Pawar addressing a rally in Satara on October 18. Others around him tried to cover themselves from the heavy downpour, but a determined Pawar carried on. This image assumes significance in the light of the performance of the NCP in the state, a performance that has seen the party emerge as stronger than its ally, the Congress, and seen its relevance in state politics restored. The octogenarian leader with more than five decades in public life had shown the same steely determination and stamina, when, on October 3, he was on his feet for more than four hours during the nomination-filing procession of party colleague, Jitendra Awhad from Mumbra-Kalwa in Thane. It brought to mind the whirlwind campaigning that Pawar had embarked upon in the last phase of the 2004 Maharashtra assembly elections. Pawar, who was once the tallest leader from Maharashtra with a commanding stature in national politics, has suffered a serious erosion of credibility over the years. A four-time chief minister of Maharashtra, Pawar went on to national politics to head the ministries of agriculture and defence, and emerged as one of the acceptable figures of coalition politics. In May, 1999, as members of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), Pawar, along with the late Lok Sabha Speaker, PA Sangma, and Tariq Anwar had written that famous letter to Congress president Sonia Gandhi challenging the idea of her prime ministership. That open challenge to the Gandhi family backfired and led to Pawar's expulsion from the party after which he formally established the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in June, 1999. He had the fullest support in Maharashtra, including that of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray for his ambitious attempt to become the nation's first "Marathi" prime minister. In the popular perception, Pawar is seen as a cultured leader with an appreciation for the arts, literature and music; he is well-read and has excellent administrative skills. He was seen as progressive in his thoughts and ideas. His reputation and credibility have suffered over the decades because of crony capitalism. His alleged involvement in the failed Lavasa project in Pune or his questionable association with a number of businessmen, including two builders in Pune with astronomical wealth, have not helped. Pawar's image changed over the last decade to that of a leader of the Marathas who was now indulging in caste politics in the state. Crony capitalism, caste politics, accusations of serious corruption against a string of NCP leaders, with Chhagan Bhujbal actually spending time in jail, chipped away at Pawar's stature. But as the poll results have shown, Pawar is not a man to give up, no matter what. That inspiring spectacle of a speech in heavy downpour in Satara could perhaps prove to be another turning point in his extraordinary political career.

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