Pawar Amit Shah
The purported high profile meeting between Sharad Pawar and Amit Shah took place last week amid a political crisis in Maharashtra Image Credit: ANI and PTI

In a matter of only 16 months, Sharad Pawar, who used to talk to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah from a position of strength in November 2019, is now looking for “protection” of his party man Anil Deshmukh, the Home minister of Maharashtra.

Mumbai’s recently transferred Police Commissioner, Param Bir Singh, in his letter to Chief Minister, Uddhav Thackeray, made a sensational claim that Deshmukh had directed suspended assistant police commissioner Sachin Waze to collect Rs100 crore every month for him — from bars restaurants and other establishments.

Singh himself doesn’t enjoy too much credibility but his letter is potent enough to invite legal repercussions. Never before has any Home minister has been directly accused in this manner of running an extortion racket.

Uncomfortable allies

Thus far, publicly Pawar and his party supported Deshmukh but this has left the allies uncomfortable. Congress’s leader and former Maharastra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan told Gulf News, “There is a moral issue involved in the letter but we are waiting for the inquiry to come out.”

Singh’s acutely embarrassing allegations has made Pawar uneasy because he himself had selected pliable Deshmukh to run the ministry. Pawar, who was hospitalised recently, is one of the wiliest politicians independent India has seen. He has mastered the art of keeping all vested interests on his side. Modi and Shah are late entrants in the game.

Also, the arrest of Sachin Vaze by the NIA has created some tension, if not scare in the state government. Nobody knows how much Vaze knows and what all he will share with the central agency.

Vaze, who had joined Shiv Sena during the years when he was suspended, has been arrested in connection with an explosives laden vehicle that was found near the home of billionaire industralist Mukesh Ambani.

Vaze’s arrest, death of an eyewitness, phone-tapping by the sleuth in police department and Singh’s letter has affected the Maharashtra government, politically.

Reportedly, Vaze and his top boss Singh were actually working in tandem which makes situation more complicated.

Flight to Ahmedabad

Obviously, Pawar must have felt the heat of the situation. In less than a week after Singh’s damaging letter became public, he flew to Ahmedabad.

On Friday 26, March Pawar arrived in Ahmedabad from Mumbai along with his longtime friend and the party leader Praful Patel. Around the same time home minister Amit Shah also arrived in Ahmedabad from Delhi.

However, sources in the establishment leaked the news on Twitter, giving indication of the presence of both top-level leaders in an informal set up near Thaltej highway.

While Shah didn’t clearly deny meeting Pawar, Mumbai pulsated. Even Sanjay Raut, Sena leader, acknowledged the alleged Pawar-Shah meeting initially but later denied it.

The “leaked news”, fake or real, may have implications on the Maharashtra government that’s run by Maha Vikas Aghadi of Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress. The Aghadi was created to stop BJP from forming the government in Maharashtra.

The BJP had done well in elections in October 2019 but its old ally Shiv Sena wanted the top post of chief minister. The tussle that followed got sour between Uddhav Thackeray and Shah.

BJP and NCP could have joined hands and given a stable government, but Modi and Shah got the jolt when Pawar in November 2019 meeting -- in Modi’s office in parliament -- decided not to opt for the political alliance with BJP.

Pawar calculated he might wield total power, more freedom with a regional party — Shiv Sena — and a weakened and divided state Congress. The unthinkable happened when “secular Congress” supported Shiv Sena.

It was a classic ‘Pawar moment’ when Uddhav Thakerey was sworn-in under the game plan, prepared and executed well by Pawar. Modi and Shah were checkmated in spite of their best efforts.

Now, in less than two years, Shiv Sena and Congress are having reality check. While Uddhav started off quite well, lately his party is struggling to maintain its strong Hindutva identity and is facing severe and multiple after-effects of Covid while administrating the state.

The thinking in Congress is that apart from their common goal of keeping the Maratha network strong, there is nothing much to gain if the NCP dominates the show, the way it is doing now. Sena and the Congress both find the NCP consolidating ground at their cost but none of three allies are ready to rock the boat, yet.

There is also fear that the BJP is as strong as it was in November 2019. The NCP can grow at expense of the Congress and BJP can grow at expense of Sena but it seems the BJP is treading slowly.

Mentor of Marathas

BJP is acutely aware that Pawar is 80 and has an image of being the mentor of the Marathas. Since the last few elections, the BJP has gained among the OBC minus Marathas but Devendra Fadnavis has been unable to build up personal credentials among the Maratha voters.

The BJP is unlikely to do any political manoeuvring that may hurt Maratha pride. It will be satisfied, for time being, if the ruling parties stand divided over the issues ignited by the BJP.

Pawar, on the other hand, is the leader in hurry. He has been nurturing national ambitions since decades, but failed.

Raut has started batting for Pawar saying the Maratha strongman should be made chief of UPA by replacing Sonia Gandhi to take on Modi. This has upset Congress. Maharastra state chief, Nana Patole, has snubbed Raut strongly. In Kerala election, Pawar’s party has aligned with the Left front and fighting against the Congress.

Pawar’s current predicament is understandable.

In national politics May 2 is emerging as the crucial date when the assembly results of West Bengal and other four states would be out.

Mamata Bannerji’s victory or loss both are not going to be of much help to Pawar’s national ambitions.

If, Mamata Bannerji loses the state, the BJP would gain enormous heft and supreme confidence. Modi-Shah will become hard negotiators at all levels in all the states.

BJP will get hyper in Maharashtra where it’s the largest party. Some Congress MLAs and a section of Shiv Sena have lost interest in the current dispensation and might negotiate their future with the BJP if the saffron outfit wins the difficult state of West Bengal.

If Mamata wins, not just Pawar even Rahul will feel the Mamata challenge in taking the leadership role against Modi.

The issue before Pawar is that after May 2, he will have to completely redraw all his plans that helped him stand up against Modi-Shah in November 2019.