A few weeks ago, senior leaders of two factions within the Nationalist Congress Party almost came to blows in front of party chief Sharad Pawar.

Before the presidential and vice-presidential elections, they had been debating whether the party should support the candidates of the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Opposition. While one group wanted to openly side with the BJP, the other was bitterly opposed to any attempt to abandon the party’s secular and socialist credentials to enter a saffron space dominated by the national ruling party and the Shiv Sena.

Many of the Nationalist Congress Party MLAs in Maharashtra are from marginal seats and minority community votes are important for them to retain a hold over their constituencies. However, there are also prominent leaders in the party without any grassroots connection, who have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha or Legislative Council. These leaders are raring to join forces with the BJP essentially to keep their business interests going or to escape prosecution by authorities for past transgressions.

The split down the middle and confusion within the party rank and file manifested itself in the high-stakes Rajya Sabha election on August 8 in Gujarat, where the Nationalist Congress Party has two MLAs.

That election was described as a personal battle between the BJP’s Amit Shah and the Congress’ Ahmed Patel, with Shah doing his best to ensure that Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary was not re-elected to the Upper House for the fifth term. It turned out to be a bitter fight to the finish, with Patel scraping through after a day of high drama. Shah and his party colleague Smriti Irani were the other two people elected.

Before the election, while one of the Nationalist Congress Party’s two MLAs claimed that he would vote for the BJP as his party had issued a whip to that effect, Ahmed Patel claimed that the party’s leaders had assured him of their support, a fact endorsed by Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule. However, senior Nationalist Congress Party leader Praful Patel, who is in charge of Gujarat, maintained a studied silence. Ultimately, it appeared one Nationalist Congress Party vote went to the BJP and the other to the Congress. It is this one vote that is believed to have helped Patel just about win the election.

(Photo credit: AFP).

Pawar’s flip-flops

Sharad Pawar has been straddling two boats for a long time now and he is in danger of falling into deep waters. His cosying up to Modi has not gone down well with his voter base and this was reflected in the results to the civic polls in Maharashtra early this year where the Nationalist Congress Party did poorly, losing many of the civic bodies it held to the Shiv Sena or the BJP. For instance, his flip-flops on demonetisation have been confusing his workers and his voters alike, and he is under tremendous pressure to take a stand and clear the confusion.

While the Shiv Sena has perfected the art of having its cake and eating it too – being in government with the BJP and yet bitterly opposing its ally, thus occupying the opposition space as well – the Nationalist Congress Party is struggling to keep on the right side of a resurgent BJP and yet hold on to the Congress for its electoral fortunes.

A senior Nationalist Congress Party leader said that he and many of his like-minded colleagues have given Pawar an ultimatum to make the party’s stand clear so that they have a clear understanding of which way to go. But, typically, Pawar continues to hedge his bets and cover both his flanks. He broke up the fight between the two factions by saying, “Narendra Modi is a great leader and he can be expected to take the country places.”

But party leaders say that Pawar was so deadpan while making that statement that neither side knew whether he was being serious or sarcastic. They are still pondering over that even as Pawar alternately praises Modi and then tears into him for destroying the harmony of the country.

(Photo credit: AFP).

Back to basics

However, Pawar seems to have a sense of what needs to be done to rebuild his party – by going back to the grassroots. It is unlikely that he will openly root for the BJP as his core base is Western Maharashtra, from where he gets maximum electoral returns. This is Chhatrapati Shivaji territory, and the Maratha ethos, despite its current problems with Dalits following the brutal Kopardi rape case, is a socialist one.

In Marathwada, however, there has been tremendous resentment against Dalits since 1994 when Pawar, then the chief minister, renamed Aurangabad’s Marathwada University after BR Ambedkar. Both the Sena and the BJP have made gains in this region in the past two decades for this reason, but there has been some erosion in their support recently. Pawar has sensed that breach and is making desperate efforts to recover lost ground here as nowhere else in Maharashtra does the NCP stand much of a chance to, well, stand on its own feet.

“Together with the Congress our core strength is about 80 to 85 seats which we cannot lose,” said Nawab Malik, the party’s chief spokesperson. “But to win the remaining 60-70 seats for a majority we need to make that extra effort.”

Underlying that statement is the admission that the Nationalist Congress Party cannot make it on its own. It also cannot fight in the saffron space, which is carved up between the Sena and BJP. A recent private survey conducted by the Shiv Sena has revealed that the “hand” – the Congress symbol – is gaining ground in rural areas while the BJP continues to dominate the urban space. That is worrying the NCP as much as it is the Shiv Sena as Pawar has also been trying to grab some more territory by invading the Sena’s regional turf. However, neither that nor its flirtations with the BJP seem to be convincing its voters.

On the other hand, the current BJP-Sena dispensation in Maharashtra is cold to dealing with the Nationalist Congress Party because that will entail turning a blind eye to its corrupt deals of the past, which the BJP has promised to investigate. The saffron party is also trying to displace the NCP from its pre-eminent position in the cooperative sector through a series of takeovers and supercessions of banks and other institutions, thus putting its very existence in peril.

Under the circumstances, the Congress could be its only friend. But after a series of betrayals by the NCP (it also skipped a meeting called by Congress president Sonia Gandhi in New Delhi last week to discuss a possible grand alliance for 2019), will the Congress play ball? Some Congress leaders want to, others are bitterly opposed.

Perhaps Pawar knows the Congress’s need for an alliance with his party is greater. But if he continues to ride two horses pulling in opposite directions, a disastrous fall is inevitable.