Does Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar hope to emerge as the focal point of a national secular front of Opposition parties with an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls?

This question has been doing the rounds since the Maratha strongman called up senior Opposition leaders to invite them to a march in Mumbai on Republic Day to protest the Narendra Modi-led government’s alleged attempts to change the Constitution. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has on several occassions been accused of trying to amend the Constitution, most recently when one of its ministers said the Centre planned to remove the word secular from the Preamble of the Constitution.

The planned “Samvidhan Bachao” (Save the Constitution) silent march to the Gateway of India on January 26 also comes in the wake of a press conference by four senior Supreme Court judges on Friday at which they alluded to selective allocation of cases and administrative mismanagement on Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra’s watch.

Pawar personally called up National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, former Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav, and D Raja of the Communist Party of India to impress upon them the need to come together and participate in the protest march. Opposition leaders admitted this is the first time Pawar has taken such an initiative to bring them together on a common platform.

Congress wary

However, Pawar’s actions have not gone down well with the Congress, which believes he is taking ownership of the programme to project himself as the face of a united Opposition. As the main Opposition party with a pan-Indian presence, the Congress believes it should be leading such a front.

“Not only is he positioning himself as the face of a united Opposition grouping, but he also wants to create an inevitability about it,” said a senior Congress leader from Maharashtra who did not want to be identified.

Congress members pointed out that the programme was actually organised by civil society groups with independent MP Raju Shetti, who broke away from the BJP last year and now heads the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, acting as its convenor. On his part, Shetti has underlined that this is not a political programme but a movement of the common people. Congress leaders maintained it was Shetti who had invited their leaders in Maharashtra to participate in the march.

Pawar’s actions have put the Congress in a bind. If it does not participate in the march, it would be accused of boycotting a programme that focuses on an important matter and of breaking ranks with other Opposition parties. But deputing its senior leaders to represent the party at the event might be taken as acknowledgement of Pawar’s leadership role. To get around this, the Congress plans to depute its state leaders to participate in the protest march.

The Congress, at the same time, is attempting to upstage Pawar and the other organisers by holding similar “Save Constitution” rallies in every district of Maharashtra on the same day. This is essentially meant to send out a message that the Congress is the lead opposition player.

Though it has shared power with the Nationalist Congress Party both in Maharashtra and at the Centre in the past, the grand old party has always had its doubts about Pawar. The two parties did not contest the last state Assembly elections in 2014 or the subsequent local body elections as alliance partners. In December’s Gujarat elections, too, they went their separate ways.

The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party once shared power both in Maharashtra and at the Centre but have since gone their separate ways. (Credit: HT)

In this instance, Congress leaders are convinced Pawar is banking on the fact that their new party president Rahul Gandhi, unlike his mother Sonia Gandhi, is not ready to take on the leadership of a national secular alliance. Pawar, on the other hand, is a seasoned politician and a competent administrator with excellent relations with political leaders of all hues.

A change of heart?

Pawar’s proactive approach is a far cry from his earlier ambivalence on the subject of Opposition unity. So far, efforts to present a united Opposition front have mostly been initiated by former Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Under her leadership, Opposition parties came together and held several meetings after the Modi government’s decision to demonetise high-value currency notes in November 2016, and to pick common candidates for the posts of president and vice-president that fell vacant in mid-2017. However, these efforts to keep the Opposition flock together suffered a setback when Bihar chief minister and Janata Dal (United) chief Nitish Kumar switched sides to ally with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance last year.

When Sonia Gandhi called a meeting of Opposition leaders in August to evolve a strategy to take on the BJP, Pawar stayed away.

Relations between the two parties worsened after the Nationalist Congress Party reportedly did not vote for Congress leader Ahmed Patel in the Rajya Sabha elections held the same month. Though the Nationalist Congress Party blamed the rift on the Congress’s “big brother attitude”, the latter was convinced that Pawar was veering towards the BJP, especially since the ruling party’s relationship with its alliance partner in Maharasthra, the Shiv Sena, was strained. According to speculation, Pawar was not averse to bailing out the BJP-led government in the state in case his party’s help was needed.

But a growing disenchantment with the BJP in the rural hinterland is believed to have prompted Pawar to change tack. Dropping his neutral position, he launched a “halla bol” agitation against the BJP-Shiv Sena government in December in an effort to regain lost ground in his home state Maharashtra. The campaign, which will conclude in February, targets the government on its handling of the farm crisis in the state. Pawar seems to have realised that it would serve him better to renew his alliance with the Congress and be part of the Opposition grouping, given that the BJP is fast losing ground because of its inability to address the agrarian crisis.