In 'Pawar Save' Mode
Sharad Chandra Govindrao Pawar , 71, does not usually take combative public postures. Though the Agriculture Minister and Nationalist Congress Party chief has had his differences with his United Progressive Alliance partner, the Congress, ever since their coalition came to power in 2004, he has always given the impression of being a staunch ally. Indeed, only weeks ago he refused to back NCP co-founder Purno Sangma's Presidential bid, forcing Sangma to quit the party. Yet, just after the Presidential poll results, Pawar sparked a crisis by threatening to withdraw his party from the government and provide only outside support.
Obviously he was miffed. But why? "Sharad Pawar was always a responsible UPA leader," says Heavy Industries Minister Praful Patel, his party colleague and confidante. "But we were not being included in many decision-making processes."
That may not be the only reason. Perhaps the elevation of Defence Minister A.K. Antony to the No.2 spot in the Cabinet, after Pranab Mukherjee quit to contest the Presidential poll, upset him. Though NCP has only nine members in the Lok Sabha, Pawar held the No.3 spot, after the Prime Minister and Mukherjee, and may have expected a promotion to No.2. "NCP may be a small party, but the stature and experience of its leader should be respected," says another NCP insider.
Pawar, who first became a legislator in the Maharashtra assembly in 1967, has been chief minister of the state four times, He was even in the race for prime ministership in 1991, but later settled for the defence portfolio in Narasimha Rao's government. He has been in and out of the Congress, quitting for the second time in 1999 - after which he formed NCP.
There may be still other reasons for Pawar's annoyance. For someone who began his political career chasing away profiteering traders from the Pune mandi and helping farmers get remunerative prices, Pawar has been peeved by the various curbs recently imposed on sugar, milk and cotton exports, which affect sections of farmers adversely.
He was incensed when, in March this year, the Commerce Ministry banned cotton exports - the order was withdrawn later - without even informing him. He complained to the PM in April after a group of ministers limited cotton exports. Again, he was perhaps the only one in the government who pointed out the fiscal burden of implementing the Food Security Bill.
Yet his own performance as agriculture minister has hardly been spectacular. The agricultural sector has neither seen high growth nor reforms. The recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers have not been implemented. Until last year, Pawar held the Food and Consumer Affairs portfolio too, where he failed to control soaring food prices. His involvement in cricket management - first, as head of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, and later of the International Cricket Council - sparked criticism that he was not focusing enough on his ministry. The NCP has also had its problems in Maharashtra, where too it is in coalition with the Congress. A recent white paper on agriculture hinted at a potential irrigation scam, with NCP leaders allegedly involved.
For the time being, NCP has withdrawn its threat following the proposal to set up two coordination panels, one at the Centre and the other in the state, to give allies more say in decisions. If nothing else, Pawar has shown he cannot be taken for granted.