Between a story and the reason for it, there often falls a shadow. The news item, published in a Marathi newspaper, that Sharad Pawar had met Narendra Modi was not accurate, but it seemed reasonable. The newspaper did not search too hard for proof because it was persuaded by circumstantial evidence. This does not justify the newspaper’s decision to publish the story, but, for what it is worth, explains why it did so.
Sharad Pawar has denied the story with uncharacteristic vehemence. We should accept his version. This does not suggest that Pawar has never met BJP leaders privately. Of course he has, and he has every right to do so. Politicians do not have to read from the same page in order to converse. That is the charming flexibility of democracy. But in an age of the permanent television camera, it would be almost impossible for such high-profile players to escape picture scrutiny. Modi is haunted by journalists on any tour. There is no safe-house for politicians at election time that is ever quite safe; each one leaks like a water tanker heading for public duty.
The story was printed only because the newspaper relied not on present facts but past record. Pawar has always had a sharp eye for the winning side, hopping between Congress and non-Congress alliances after checking the weather report at ground level with his persuasive personal barometer. He has not allowed considerations like pique, or likes and dislikes, to interfere with political decisions. Critics call this amoral; he shrugs, and dismisses such a pompous judgement as the privilege of losers.
As long as Pawar is winning, nothing is lost. Even when he did end up on the wrong side, during the six years when NDA, led by Atal Behari Vajpayee, was in office, Pawar made sure his personal relations with the Prime Minister remained impeccable. He even got an office with Cabinet rank from Vajpayee.
Reporters get out to do stories, and pick up trends. They know that Congress is in trouble this year. They are loath to believe that Pawar will sully his reputation by ending up on the wrong side, when the last word has not been said on electoral alliances in Maharashtra. The pile of circumstantial evidence, in the meanwhile, has been building up. Pawar’s spokesmen have been openly critical of some comments made by Rahul Gandhi. Praful Patel, Pawar’s colleague in Cabinet, suggested that the case against Modi over the Gujarat riots should be treated as closed since the courts had exonerated Modi.
Others said, on the record, that alliance options remain open. From here it was but one leap towards the story that Pawar and Modi had met. Not the truth, as we are told, but at least a poetic truth. The twist in this tale lies in classic role reversal.
So far, Sharad Pawar has written the operating rules for Maharashtra. He was never so foolish as to overestimate his claims in seat distribution. After 2004, he accepted a reduced status in the Delhi pecking order to maintain amity. But he knew, and Congress knew, that without his strength in the state Congress could never come to power in Maharashtra.
The evident rethinking in Pawar’s camp confirms that Modi has finally eroded this pattern. At the very least, Pawar does not want to alienate the Modi voter by being hostile at a time when the air is full of talk about a possible Modi sweep in the urban stretch and sprawl between Mumbai and Pune. But the news for him now gets worse; there is also rethinking in BJP and Sena.
For the last decade BJP has been trying to wean Pawar away from Congress. This time, both BJP and Sena have said, long before any negotiations can begin, that Pawar can remain where he is, alongside Congress. The saffron partners have supplemented the increase in their vote with allies who bring small, but critical, additions to vote share. It is these small parties which smell the grass at its roots best. They cannot enter office alone; common sense suggests that they need to hitch a ride in a larger vehicle that moves forward. As Sharad Pawar should know better than any other politician in India, there is nothing personal about it. This is politics.
These are straws in the wind that indicate a gathering storm. This storm is significant because Maharashtra has been the safest state for UPA in the last decade. If Congress cannot get its existing MPs re-elected in Maharashtra, then it is in serious danger of being uprooted by a sweeping hurricane that extends across most of the country. Even where Modi cannot win, like West Bengal or Odisha, Congress is likely to lose.
Pawar, naturally, is more worried about his own party than he is about Congress. Perhaps he should have met Modi, after all.