January 12, 2014

IN THE DOCK


THE PICTURE IS LOOKING GLOOMY FOR THE NCP

Courtesy: India Today

It seems that like the Congress party, its alliance partners in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government too are facing the heat ahead of the Lok Sabha polls. And the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is no exception. Formed in 1999 by the trio of Sharad Pawar, Tariq Anwar and P A Sangma after they were expelled from the INC for hitting out at Sonia Gandhi over the foreign origin issue, the outfit joined hands with the Congress in Maharashtra months after its inception; the alliance in the state has been strong ever since and the partners have been in power for 14 years in a row now. Similarly, it entered into an electoral agreement with the Congress, conveniently compromising on the principle of its formation for electorally benefits during the 2004 General polls and has been a constituent of the UPA ever since. Of course, there were speculations of Sharad Pawar dumping his former party and allying with the Third Front in 2009; this was furthered strengthened by some regional players suggesting his candidature for the post of the Prime Minister. However, with his outfit managing to win just nine seats and the INC surpassing the figure of 200 on its own, the Maratha leader's hopes of occupying 7 Race Course were dashed. Half a decade later, things have only got worse for Pawar. On the eve of the big elections in May 2014 and the state polls scheduled few months later, the NCP is looking in bad shape; many believe that Pawar's outfit has lost the battle even before it begins. Here is a list of four reasons as to why I would not place my money on the NCP to do well in the two elections.

Sharad Pawar to quit: Yes, finally the big man has announced his retirement from active politics. Speaking to media persons, senior NCP leader Praful Patel announced that the Union Agriculture Minister would not contest the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, paving way for the next generation of leaders to take the party forward. Having joined politics in the 1960s, Pawar has served as the Chief Minister on four different occasions besides being the Leader of Opposition in the state assembly when the BJP-Sena combine was in power. One of the most successful politician of his generation, he was given the all important Defence portfolio in the Narsimha Rao cabinet. However, the NCP supremo has been involved in controversies throughout his 'distinguished' career. Like the Lalus and the Mulayums, he is accused of being involved in several scams and shielding people with criminal background. An opportunist, he was never averse to joining, splitting or allying with parties just for political gains. Probably, his biggest failure of his career has been his inefficient way of administering Mumbai properly during the serial blasts in 1993 and the riots that followed. Even in his tenure as the Agriculture minister in UPA II, several serious charges were levied against him, including the Lavasa project where environmental norms where openly flouted. I am not sure whether that tight slap from Harvinder Singh played a part in his decision to quit. If yes, I would sincerely like to thank him for the great service that he has done to the nation. However, there is a small condition that Patel specified in the press release which is a bit of disappointment. Pawar is ready to continue his tryst with politics (and corruption) and is likely to be elected to the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra this March. While he will still be a part of the political stage in 2014 and is expected to campaign heavily for the party, his retirement is surely impact the fortunes of the NCP, especially in western Maharashtra, which has been its traditional stronghold.

Anti-incumbency: The NCP has a record which very few regional parties can boast of in our Rajneeti - it has stayed in power for over 14 years in Maharashtra. Winning three elections in a row, so what if it was in alliance with the INC is something to be proud of. However, with great powers come greater responsibilities. While the two partners have given decent governments to the state over the years, the many scandals that have come to light, especially the Irrigation scam that led to the resignation of NCP leader and Sharad Pawar's nephew Ajit Pawar is set to have a negative impact on the outfit's performance. Though it has played second fiddle to the INC throughout the three terms, the anti-incumbency sentiment which is looming large in the state is expected to adversely affect its numbers. In fact, there is a bigger problem for the party to tackle. The Pawar-led party has also been a part of the UPA since 2004. The failure of the Manmohan Singh regime, especially in its second innings is likely to hurt all its constituents. NCP supremo Sharad Pawar has been the Union Agriculture minister for nearly a decade now. The high inflation rates and the sorry plight of farmers in most parts of the country, mainly in his home turf of Maharashtra is giving the party nightmares. On the other hand, the Shiv Sena which has been the NCP's rival in the state has improved its strength, looking much better than it was about two years ago. Also, the projection of Gujarat CM Narendra Modi is likely to benefit the saffron partners in Maharashtra. While there is nothing to suggest that there is a pro-NDA wave in the region, it is but natural for it to gain from the failures of the UPA regime. In related development, Mayank Gandhi has said that AAP will put up candidates on all seats that the NCP will contest.  

Souring relations: The relations between the Congress and the NCP have been far from smooth over the years. I am not sure whether the Congress President has forgotten Pawar's rebellion over her appointment to the post. Although reports of friction amongst the two parties, both in state and the Centre have emerged at regular intervals, the war of words has only escalated in recent times. In December last year, the Agriculture minister had said that country needed strong leaders like Indira Gandhi in what has been viewed as a dig at the serving PM. Reacting to Manmohan Singh's scathing attack on Narendra Modi's candidature for the post of the Prime Minister, Pawar advised the PM to use his words carefully. Now it seems that the discussions over seat sharing arrangement in Maharashtra is further souring the relations between the two allies. In 2009 polls, the Congress contested on 26 seats winning 17 of them whereas the NCP finished first only on 8 of the 22 which it fought on. It is believed that the INC leadership, including CM Prithviraj Chavan are keen to contest more seats this time. Considering the precarious situation that the NCP finds itself in, the party high command believes that it stands a better chance to fight the BJP-Sena partnership compared to its partner. I wonder what makes the grand old party think this way? At a press conference, Chavan suggested a new formula for the 2014 General elections - 29:19. On the other hand, the Maratha leader is in no mood to compromise on this. It will be interesting to see how this concludes in the days to come. Meanwhile, Pawar has made it clear that his party will fight the Lok Sabha in places outside Maharashtra without any consensus with the Congress.

The battle of succession: There is no doubt that Sharad Pawar is a mass leader. Irrespective of how many parties he has changed, his core vote bank has always stood by him. The NCP today is more or less synonymous with him. He is the party's main vote catcher and it is largely due to his presence that it has managed to survive in his home state while sinking into oblivion in other parts. Though the Maratha strongman is expected to be at the helm of affairs for much of 2014, it should not be surprising if there erupts a war of succession amongst the second rung leaders to led the party in the post Sharad Pawar era. The strongest contender is Ajit Pawar, the nephew of the Union Agriculture minister. In fact, it was he who vacated his Parliamentary seat of Baramati for his uncle in 1991. He has served as a cabinet minister in the state government for a long time. Like the NCP supremo, he is a mass leader and he too has been engulfed in numerous controversies throughout his career. Short tempered and unambiguous, he was in the news for the wrong reasons last year; responding to a query on the drought crisis in the state, he sarcastically asked whether he should urinate to get waters in the dam. It looks like he lacks the political acumen of his uncle. Supriya Sule, the daughter of Sharad Pawar may also stake a claim at the top shot. Apart from some social work, her only qualification is that she is the daughter of senior Pawar. In 2010, there were some allegations that she and her dad owned some stake in the IPL Pune franchise. State Home minister R R Patil who heads the NCP in the legislative assembly and the party's lower caste face Chhagan Bhujbal are also nursing ambitions to head the outfit. Former Union minister Praful Patel is the dark horse and he may emerge as the consensus candidate to keep the various warring factions together.



IMAGES

(1) Courtesy: India Today
Original: Difficult to implement Food Bill without adequate funds, says Sharad Pawar (Link)