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The more things change

In the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator,there is a famous scene in which Adolf Hitler and Mussolini meet.

Written by Kumar Ketkar |
February 9, 2010 9:49:17 pm

In the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator,there is a famous scene in which Adolf Hitler and Mussolini meet. Both of them,trying to be one up on each other,constantly raise the height of their chairs. The effort is to prove that the one dictator is more powerful than the other. It lies in the eyes of the beholder to decide whether the scene is hilarious or pathetic. The analogy is metaphorical and not direct,but quite illustrative.

Just when the city of Mumbai was still reeling under the stunning impact of Rahul Gandhi’s visit and the humiliation it caused to the Shiv Sena,there came a flash that “Maratha strongman” Sharad Pawar would pay a visit to the Sena’s fort,Matoshree,where the Thackerays reside and issue their “fatwas” from. Indeed,the ambience around Matoshree is not fundamentally different from what it must have been around Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran.

Balasaheb is Sena’s self-styled ayatollah who recently issued a “fatwa” against the Australian cricketers playing in Mumbai and Maharashtra. The diktat did not get much support from the Sena itself. Neither the BJP nor the MNS joined the bandwagon. The success of Rahul Gandhi’s visit and the farcical response by the Sena leadership made the Tiger and his den look like a joke. The cartoonist was reduced to a caricature.

But equally important,the “Maratha strongman” too looked like a pathetic shadow of his former self. He must have thought he would provide some strength to the Sena in its hour of need. For,it is Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party which needs Shiv Sena more than the other way round. Ever since Pawar’s efforts of becoming prime minister failed,he has been looking for new friends and allies. In fact,he had tried very hard to rope in the Sena and all the small parties in Maharashtra,and in other states too,before the Lok Sabha election to create a front which would support his candidature for the post. The winning card was being Marathi. The NCP had always been sympathetic to the Sena,knowing that the Tiger would back Pawar,just as it had backed Pratibha Patil on the same identity question.

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It is obvious that Pawar saw that the Sena had been caught in an air pocket,and Balasaheb too thought that the so-called strongman had been cornered by the Congress on the issue of price rise. As far as legislative arithmetic is concerned,it works — Pawar’s NCP has 60 seats and the Sena-BJP alliance has 90. Together they would be 150,four more than the current Congress-NCP tally of 144.

The idea that the NCP has toyed with for quite some time is to do the “Deve Gowda-Kumaraswamy” trick in Maharashtra,in which Ajitdada,Pawar’s nephew,would officially “rebel”,challenging the NCP’s national leadership and launch his own regional party. Pawar would make public noises against the indiscipline and the rebellion. But all the NCP men would support him and also the BJP-Sena. Thus Pawar would retain his seat in the Central cabinet and Ajitdada would be CM. The Congress would be isolated.

This gameplan is too simplistic to be attractive to other NCP men. That is why it has been thought about so many times but never actually brought into action. There are too many ambitious men in the NCP wanting to become chief minister. Chhagan Bhujbal,Jayant Patil,Vijaysingh Patil and even R.R. Patil. None of these would accept the leadership of Ajitdada. But it is not arithmetic that matters for Pawar. For him,politics is beyond such mathematical calculation. For him,politics is skulduggery. He feels he must always appear indispensable. He must be feared. He must be perceived as a man who would stoop to any level to topple the applecart. But when it actually comes to action,Pawar has always backed out. Congressmen have studied him too closely and for over 30 years to be fooled again. Though they are often in awe of Pawar,they are rarely tricked.

Congressmen know that Pawar had threatened to challenge Sitaram Kesri in 1997. Indeed,he went on record and declared that he would mobilise Congressmen and with their support become Congress president. At the last minute,he backed out and said that he would never breach party discipline. But nobody took his words on “discipline” seriously.

Pawar broke the code in 1978,overthrowing Vasantdada Patil to become chief minister. For that he had forged a new front,in which there were members of the erstwhile Jan Sangh (which had merged with the Janata Party),the socialists,the Peasant and Workers Party and some others. In those days,there was no alliance between the Jan Sangh and the Sena. That front was created on the hypothesis that the Indira Gandhi era was over and the coalition era had begun. But within three years,the Janata experiment collapsed. That was the end of the Progressive Democratic Front led by Pawar.

In 1986,he joined the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi and within two years,after a lot of manipulations within,became chief minister. But within two years,Rajiv saw through his game and decided to replace him. The party was about to take action against Pawar and remove him from the post when many leading lights in industry and the bureaucracy prevailed upon Rajiv to retain him. But Pawar never forgave Rajiv for the humiliation he suffered then.

His third rebellion,if it can be called so,came in May 1999,when he challenged the leadership of Sonia on the question of her “foreign origin”. In June that year he formally launched the NCP and even fought the 1999 assembly election against the Congress. Yet,when it came to government formation,he saw that politics was more important than arithmetic. He quickly announced that to keep the communal forces out of power,he would join hands with the Congress. Thus the Congress-NCP alliance was formed.

But the main characteristic of the alliance is continuous rivalry within the ranks and a sustained effort to run each other down.

In this game,the NCP is more efficient than the Congress. It is the same game again — to keep the Congress on tenterhooks and get mileage in Delhi as well as in the state.

The writer is editor,‘Loksatta’

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