With former finance minister Yashwant Sinha by his side and political strategist Prashant Kishor as his sherpa, veteran political leader with across-the-board acceptability, Sharad Pawar, has launched a new political initiative to unite the non-Congress opposition with a view to defeating the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The NCP supremo has invited all non-Congress political parties to his Delhi residence for a meeting on Tuesday that could set off a round of ‘conclave’ politics that was a dominant feature of Indian politics in the decades of the 1980s and led to a new alignment of forces that forced the Congress out of its dominant political position for many years to come.
Pawar’s initiative pointedly excludes the Congress. While the move is not without its internal political contradictions, “much more than Narendra Modi, it is the Congress that needs to worry”, said a former Congress chief minister.
Meanwhile, Congress President Sonia Gandhi has called for a meeting of party officebearers to discuss ways to address multiple challenges, including high petrol prices.
Prashant Kishor has had two rounds of meeting with Pawar. In the first three-hour round, among other things, the two discussed the possibility of the Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena joining up for the Brihannmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections. When a senior Congress leader called on Pawar in Mumbai (who was convalescing after surgery of his mouth), he said the NCP leader conceded to him that a large opposition grouping that excluded the Congress would not be strong enough to challenge the BJP). But apparently Kishor told him otherwise and Congress leaders are homing in on Prashant Kishore’s influence on Pawar to turn him away from the Congress.
Within days of that meeting, Pawar is making his moves, surefooted and agile. The expectation is that even if senior leaders like K Chandrashekhara Rao (Telangana CM and leader of the TRS), MK Stalin (Tamil Nadu CM and leader of the DMK) and Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal CM and leader of the TMC) are unable to attend, they will send representatives senior enough to indicate their engagement. It is not yet clear if the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), an ally of the BJP till recently, has been invited. Sources advising the SAD said the upcoming assembly elections in Punjab will not yield the kind of decisive victory the Congress is seeking and the SAD would like to keep its options open if it has to approach the BJP for help in forming a government.
The CPI (M)-led Left Front has an alliance with Sharad Pawar’s NCP in Kerala. CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and Pawar have been in close touch. But Mamata Banerjee’s TMC and the Left parties are bitter rivals in Bengal. Can the two groups sink their differences in the large cause of national unity against the BJP? This will be evident on Tuesday, but many Congress leaders think this is not a deal-breaker when opposition to Modi is involved. The group that is most on the back foot is the Congress. Leaders were brave in public but conceded privately that the initiative had been taken and the Congress was nowhere in the picture: “In the given situation, there is not much he (Pawar) can do)” said a Congress leader. “But the meeting is going to be crucial. And it will lay bare before the world, the irrelevance of the Congress leadership.”
Pawar’s lieutenants had, some months ago, flagged the issue of the leadership of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) wondering why the Congress was doing nothing to make UPA a serious and active vehicle of the opposition. His supporters had suggested that Pawar might make a better chairman of the UPA.
Some months ago, before the West Bengal elections, Banerjee had written to all opposition parties, including the Congress, imploring that they come together to jointly oppose the “undemocratic” politics of the BJP. The letter met with a tepid response. But Pawar’s initiative, given his seniority and his capacity to negotiate, might not meet the same fate. “It is the Congress that should have made this move. It is tragic that we let someone else do it,” said a Congress leader.
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