Mumbai: The Congress has loudly sounded alarm bells for the BJP in the aftermath of recently concluded Gujarat Assembly polls, the results of which have the tell-tale sign of emerging Congress yet again. Back home in Maharashtra, the Congress is regaining its new ground with an indication in sight. There has been a lift in the spirits of the Congress ever since it won an astounding 73 out of 81 seats in the Nanded Municipal Corporation in September this year. It has since been winning quite a few other civic elections, and not just in Maharashtra, to be topped up by the Gujarat polls wherein together with its allies it was only nine seats short of the halfway mark in that assembly. On the other hand NCP Chief Sharad Pawar is nothing if not a weather being; so, much before the results were out, he made a subtle slide towards the Congress and his joining the hallabol and Jan Akrosh Yatra begun soon after the Nanded results is both a telling commentary and a warning to the current dispensation.
The last time Pawar had been on such a ‘dindi’ to Nagpur was in 1980 when AR Antulay was the chief minister and the Congress was not inimical to the interests of farmers in the state. Which is more than can be said now about the Fadnavis government in Maharashtra and Pawar was always the farmers’ man who they trusted implicitly until 2014. I remember how in 2004, Pawar did a fine job of wooing farmers over to his side simply by pointing to the urban nature of the BJP. “Everyone from Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Advani, Pramod Mahajan and Sushma Swaraj has an urban constituency. On the other hand, in the Congress -NCP, every leader of consequence, including Sonia Gandhi and I, have rural constituencies. So who do you expect will understand your problems better?” was his rhetoric.
The situation is pretty much the same a decade later. Though much water has flowed under the bridge since then, Pawar cannot be unaware of the fact that farmers committing suicide are leaving behind personal notes to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis blaming his government for its inability to offer them minimum support prices and the messing up of their loan waivers. Perhaps that, and the fact that at least one party MP (Nana Patole) and one ally (Swabhimani Shetkari Sangathana) have quit on the grounds of the BJP’s lack of understanding or concern for farmers’ problems, is enough writing on the wall which at least Pawar seems to be reading correctly.
It is remarkable, however, that at the age of 77 Pawar should be undertaking a similar punishing journey to the one that he had 37 years ago. One of the fallouts of that dindi, which was a declaration of war on government, was the eventual exit of Antulay as chief minister though it did not necessarily mean that Pawar and his then splinter party, the Congress (S), were restored to power in the state. Pawar had to merge his Congress (S) with the Congress (I) a few years later to reclaim the state. Nor do I think he will merge his NCP with the Congress now but the writing on the wall clearly says that the NCP needs the support of the Congress to regain its foothold in the state. Moreover, with the BJP’s diminishing credit among the rural and agrarian community, Fadnavis cannot be unaware of the consequences of the recreation of the 1980 dindi march, albeit with more modern means and technological tools.
Although the Congress flatly turned down the NCP’s request for an alliance in both the Brihanmunbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections and the recently concluded one in Gujarat, Pawar seems to have made up his mind that an alliance with the Congress again might be more beneficial to his party than one with the BJP. He had once told me that the Congress starts with a 20% support base of Dalits and Muslims and he has then to work hard only to turn about half the farmers over to their side and the saffron parties then stand no chance. That is what he is working towards again.
Is the BJP up to the challenge of picking up his gauntle?