He’s Maharashtra’s ‘tallest leader’, but is Sharad Pawar’s goodwill enough to win NCP the Assembly election?

He has ‘friends across party lines’ and is known for his development work.

ByPrateek Goyal
He’s Maharashtra’s ‘tallest leader’, but is Sharad Pawar’s goodwill enough to win NCP the Assembly election?
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In the early 60s, Yashwantrao Chavan, then chief minister of Maharashtra, asked Sharda Pawar, a leftist and a member of the Peasants and Workers Party, if he could mentor one of her sons. Sharda had 11 children and had told Chavan that while all the members of her family were leftists, one of her sons had “lost his path” and chosen Chavan’s. 

This young man, the focus of his mother’s worry, was Sharad Pawar, who would go on to forge his own way to become one of the tallest political leaders in Maharashtra. His stature isn’t constrained to Maharashtra: Pawar is considered a worthy enough opponent on the national level, often targeted by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in speeches and rallies.

His is a political journey marred by controversy, ranging from alleged connections to underworld don Dawood Ibrahim to his involvement in the Lavasa land scam. But in the larger scheme of things, these are mere road bumps in Pawar’s path. 

Pawar hails from Katewadi village in the drought-prone tehsil of Baramati. Later in life, he’d receive praise for the significant development that took place here, with the late Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley saying Pawar had transformed Baramati into one of India’s most progressive tehsils. Pawar’s father Govind was the manager of a farmer cooperative, the Sahakari Kharedi Vikri Sangh, and his mother Sharda was active in local politics. 

Pawar was strongly influenced by his mother, who was a member of the Pune Local Board, now called the Jila Parishad. She became a member of the board in 1936. Later, Sharda joined the PWP, also known as the Shetari Kamgar Paksh, a party known for its leftist ideology. Pawar’s older brother Vasantrao was also a PWP member.

(top) Pawar addressing a public meeting in the early days of his political career. (bottom) Pawar, his wife Pratibha, and his daughter Supriya. Photos courtesy: Vidya Pratishthan

However, Pawar’s politics was quite different. In 1958, as a student at the Brihan Maharashtra College of Commerce in Pune, he joined the Youth Congress. Nevertheless, his mother was supportive and Pawar became the secretary of the party’s Pune division. Less than five years later, he was appointed secretary of the Western Maharashtra Youth Congress and then joint secretary of the Maharashtra State Youth Congress.

Senior journalist Sada Dumbre says Sharda’s views laid the foundation of Pawar’s politics. “All the siblings were influenced by their mother, who was a strong, opinionated woman with a liberal outlook. Social work was part of the family culture.” The family, he says, had “humble beginnings” — Sharda would also work on their farm in Katewadi. “The Pawar siblings worked hard from a young age. Their parents brought them up to be industrious.”

Pawar first met Yashwantrao Chavan at a college function. Chavan was impressed by a speech Pawar gave and asked him to work for the Congress. Under Chavan’s wing, Pawar contested his first Assembly election in Baramati in 1967 at the age of 27. Pawar had been away — he had won a Unesco scholarship and was working in the offices of leaders such as Isato Sato and Robert Kennedy — but he returned to contest the election.

Pawar won by 18,000 votes. The election marked the first time his mother voted for the Congress. 

In 1972, Pawar won his second Assembly election and was made a state minister. He was education minister in the government of Vasantrao Naik and agriculture minister under Shankarrao Chavan. In 1978, he became the chief minister at the age of 38 — Maharashtra’s youngest chief minister yet. At the Centre, Pawar led the ministries of defence and agriculture in 1991-93 and 2004-14, respectively.

A ‘development leader’ with friends across party lines

Over the years, Sharad Pawar has become an institution, Dumbre says. “It doesn’t matter whether his party is in power or not — he’ll always remain a leader. For almost 60 years, he was in electoral politics and was never defeated. He’s a Left of centre leader and modernist in his approach. His political views are liberal and progressive.”

According to Dumbre, Pawar was the only leader in Maharashtra Indira Gandhi couldn’t “downsize”. “Indira Gandhi was always threatened by popular state leaders and did her best to isolate them,” he explains. “Leaders like Yashwantrao Chavan and Vasantdada Patil paid the price, but Pawar was aware of her politics. His political graph only increased.”

(top) Pawar taking oath as chief minister for the first time in 1978. (bottom) Pawar with Indira Gandhi. Photos courtesy: Vidya Pratishthan

Pawar reportedly has friends across party lines; Modi called Pawar his “political guru” in 2016. An avid reader, Pawar is said to be an expert at reading political situations, and pragmatic while dealing with them. For example, when Sonia Gandhi’s name was proposed for prime minister, he opposed it, knowing the BJP would use it to its advantage. Later, Gandhi herself declined the post and made Manmohan Singh the prime minister, possibly knowing she might do more harm than good to the Congress.

Dumbre claims Pawar is the “only political leader in Maharashtra” who can take on the BJP. “The BJP was the party that began tarnishing Pawar’s image in 1990,” he says. “They created an image of a corrupt Pawar, an image that was nowhere close to reality. Whisper campaigns were started to damage his image. Yet, he remained a hurdle for them.”

Pawar is now 79, and Dumbre thinks the ship has sailed for the NCP leader ever becoming prime minister. “But he’s still active. He’s still campaigning across the state for the ongoing Assembly election. He could have left politics after his surgery for mouth cancer but he’s iron-willed. But he has his own battles: age, and he can’t find his successor. His nephew Ajit is not liked by many, and his daughter [NCP MP Supriya Sule] is dynamic but not as politically motivated as he is.”

Vinayakrao Patil, a close friend of Pawar, says Pawar knows the “political, caste and religious combinations” of every constituency in the state. If a politician has a couple of solutions to a political situation, Patil says, Pawar will have at least 15-20 solutions. 

“For those who don’t like the BJP or the Shiv Sena, Pawar is the only alternative,” Patil says. “He was the first leader to introduce equal property rights for women in Maharashtra. He faced criticism for it, but it didn’t bog him down. And despite being their opponent, he gave the BJP unconditional support during the 2014 Assembly election. Only a statesman can take such decisions.”

Pawar has cultivated an image as a “development leader”. He has indeed helped bring some development to Baramati. In 1971, for one, Pawar founded the Agricultural Development Trust to introduce modern techniques to farmers. The trust runs Baramati’s Krishi Vigyan Kendra, a farm science centre, which is also a model KVK in India. It’s significantly helped improve the financial conditions of Baramati. 

The Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Baramati.

A senior scientist of the KVK in Baramati told Newslaundry, “Because of Pawar’s efforts, the farmers of this region are prosperous. There are villages in Baramati whose annual turnover in agriculture is in crores: the farmers in Bori village in Baramati have an annual turnover of ₹200 crore.”

Stirrings of dissent in Baramati

Baramati today has malls, hospitals, colleges, sugar factories and industries. But there’s one thing Pawar hasn’t solved here: the water problem in 23 villages in Morgaon-Supa region of the tehsil.

In 2011, Pawar faced dissent in Baramati for the first time, from a 52-year-old blind man named Namdev Karande. Karande sat on a six-day hunger strike under a tree in Morti village. By the last day of his strike, 5,000 villagers had joined him to protest against the scarcity of water in the region.

Karande told Newslaundry that though Pawar has represented Baramati throughout his career, water shortage is an acute issue in 23 villages, including Karande’s own. “Pawar was chief minister four times and a minister at the Centre. There’s no doubt that Pawar has given us many things, but he has failed to solve the water problem. He could have easily sorted it out but he did not.”

Karande says villagers here don’t have water for farming or to drink. “We get water from tankers and it’s very difficult to cope during summers,” he says. “We don’t want anything, we just need water. I’ve supported Pawar all my life but I stopped in 2014, though my family still votes for his nephew and daughter.”

Namdev Karande, the first person to publicly protest the water scarcity in Baramati.

Manohar Taware, a Baramati-based journalist, calls Karande’s hunger strike the first “public protest” in the region. “People here are developing views against the Pawar family. They still vote for Pawar in the elections though; they know they’ll be helped only by ‘Pawar Saheb’.”

Residents of Morgaon village told Newslaundry that Karande’s protest stimulated feelings of dissent against Pawar in Baramati. It hasn’t affected their decision to vote for him, though — not yet. 

Tukaram Bankar, a resident of Modve villages, says villages in the Morgaon-Suka region have struggled for 20 years to get water. Bankar himself managed to obtain water supply for three villages by successfully campaigning for the construction of six dams at Pajhar reservoir.

Speaking to Newslaundry, Bankar says, “There are about 100 villages in Baramati — of which 23 villages are in Morgaon-Supa alone — which have water problems. Pawar purposely has not provided the region with water to push people to vote for him in every election, hoping that someday he’ll sort out the issue. The Pawar family destroyed three generations in these villages by depriving them of water.”

Bankar contested the 1995 Assembly election against Ajit Pawar but lost. “I got only 1,200 votes but I used the election to protest for water.” He calls Sharad Pawar’s politics “unethical”. “People vote for Pawars because NCP workers influence them with money and power. In the past, the Pawars have even threatened workers to vote for them or else they will not get water in their villages.”

Significantly, during the 2014 Lok Sabha election, there were allegations that Ajit Pawar had threatened to cut off the water supply to Masalwadi village in Baramati if residents did not vote for Supriya Sule. Ajit Pawar is contesting the 2019 Assembly election from Baramati. 

Tukaram Bankar, who contested against Ajit Pawar in the 1995 Assembly election.

Water issues notwithstanding, many Baramati residents praise Pawar, citing his development work. Another reason offered for voting for Pawar is that there’s no “good opposition leader” in the area.

Sanjay Jagdale, a resident of Baramati, says BJP and Shiv Sena candidates only visit them during elections. “Then they never show their faces. Whereas Pawar Saheb helps us all the time in our day-to-day life. That’s why we vote for his family members,” he says.

There’s a tinge of desperation among residents. Jalinder Jagdale says villagers “don’t have the strength” to vote against the Pawars. “Our financial conditions are deteriorating because of the water scarcity,” he explains. “Meanwhile the Opposition fields worthless candidates and there’s no point in voting for them.”

Political analyst Suhas Kulkarni says Pawar has done much for Baramati for its residents to go against him. He adds that Pawar’s progressive politics have left their mark: “He introduced 33 per cent reservation for women in Maharashtra, took the decision to rename Marathwada University, implemented reservations recommended by the Mandal Commission. He gave gram panchayats the authority to ban liquor in villages.” 

But this might not have helped Pawar politically, Kulkarni says. “Maharashtra politics was dominated by the Marathas and Pawar’s decisions weren’t welcomed by them. They drifted away from him, the OBCs also left him. Pawar might be the only pan-Maharashtra leader, but his party didn’t get much support in recent elections.”

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