OPN Modi Pawar
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi conferred with the Lokmanya Tilak National Award in Maharashtra on Tuesday. NCP chief Sharad Pawar shared the dais along with Maharashtra CM Eknath Shinde, Deputy CMs Devendra Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar among other dignitaries Image Credit: ANI

In India, Sharad Pawar, linchpin of opposition unity and the founder of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has shared stage with Narendra Modi in Pune for an award conferred on the Prime Minister.

For those who came in late, NCP was hollowed out and split by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — with one faction forming government in alliance with BJP+Shinde Shiv Sena in Maharashtra — leaving Pawar leading a rump party.

This is the same Modi who made Pawar’s nephew, Ajit Pawar, breakaway from his uncle and oversaw Pawar’s closest aide Praful Patel publicly transfer his loyalty to the PM.

Pawar and his move to share the stage with Modi has left the opposition particularly Uddhav Thackeray and his Uddhav Sena dazed and confused.

An opposition delegation went to publicly call on Pawar on Monday, hoping to dissuade him from sharing the stage with Modi. They got a public snub as Pawar refused to meet them.

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Pawar and Modi together 

So as Pawar and Modi shared stage on Tuesday, his party the NCP protested in Pune against the horrors of Manipur. Yes that’s right: Pawar sharing the dais with Modi while his party protesting Modi.

So what gives with India’s most elliptical and opaque leader, Sharad Pawar? And, how does the dice stack up with barely months to go for the biggest fight in Indian democracy — the 2024 general elections.

If you consider the big fight of 2024 as the background, then a lot of these heavyweight political moves make a semblance of sense.

Consider this: The BJP swallowed its pride (Modi thumping his chest in Parliament saying “ek akela, sab pei bhari” (one alone who can defeat multitudes) and has now made its peace by being the least important constituent of the alliance that governs Maharashtra.

Devendra Fadnavis, BJP leader, who used to be the chief minister (CM) of Maharashtra and who ran a campaign saying “I will be back” is now one of the two deputy CMs in Maharashtra (first time that Maharashtra has two deputy CMs) with his erstwhile junior, Eknath Shinde, as his dotted line boss.

Fadnavis has Ajit Pawar — who he publicly said he will jail for corruption — as his colleague. Fadnavis is being publicly mocked for the diminution of his political capital on a daily basis. The BJP has had to give up juicy portfolios like finance and civil development to its new allies in Maharashtra.

Sharad Pawar
Pawar Sr is blowing hot and cold — which is a characteristic of his politics

Contours of the deal

Worse even now it is not certain of winning a giant share of Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats or even the cash rich Brihanmumbai Cooperation (BMC) elections. The BMC has a budget of ₹50 thousand crores but, uncertain of its chances is the current alliance, but the government has deferred the elections indefinitely.

The BMC will be the blockbuster elections where Uddhav Thackeray will square off against turncoat Shinde that political pundits see as a bellwether for the Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra.

Because the BJP is still extremely uncertain of its chances in the Maharashtra Lok Sabha seats, it wants to ensure that Pawar who is the ‘brain trust’ of the opposition, come over to its side.

To ensure the juicy prize of landing Pawar, the BJP has been making frantic efforts via a beleaguered billionaire who is trusted by both Pawar and Modi.

Top sources confirm to me the contours of deal offered to Pawar — of ensuring that his loyalist Jayant Patil is accommodated and Pawar become a “mentor” of his nephew Pawar and daughter Supriya Sule — who will be nationally accommodated.

Along with the velvet glove of flattering Pawar, the iron fist of the investigative agencies like the Enforcement Directorate, Central Bureau of Investigation and Income Tax are also in play to “persuade” Pawar - much like nephew “dada” was persuaded.

Pawar is blowing hot and cold — which is a characteristic of his politics. I spoke to seven opposition leaders across the Maharashtra political spectrum for this column. Pawar has left all leaders confused including those of the BJP who say that only Modi and Shah deal with Pawar.

Another factor in Maharashtra is the real restiveness of the BJP MLAs who feel that they have got a raw deal in the portfolio share with the juicy plums of office going to the allies. The BJP’s restlessness is matched by Shinde, who is mocked as being a “Daily wager CM’.

Shinde recently called on Modi to get some reassurance that he will not be dethroned. Tea was forthcoming but Modi gave no assurances.

Meanwhile, Ajit Pawar who has been deputy CM of Maharashtra multiple times is making no secret of the fact that he is punting for the top job.

Interesting times with the balance of power poised. Tipping point soon.