Third Man

The unfulfilled ambitions of Sharad Pawar

Saibal Das / The India Today Group / Getty Images
01 April, 2014


ON SUNDAY, 9 March, bad weather forced a helicopter carrying the union agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, to make an emergency landing in Beed district, Maharashtra. Since the last week of February, central India had been battered by unseasonably strong storms—the worst in possibly a hundred years. Hail and heavy rains had fallen across eight-tenths of the districts in the state, destroying roughly 1,400,000 hectares of crops, and killing twenty-eight people.

Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party, which has ruled Maharashtra for nearly fifteen years in an alliance with the Congress, had planned to hold its first official campaign rally for the general elections in Beed the following day. The event was cancelled; instead, Pawar toured storm-wasted areas across the state. So did the Congress chief minister, Prithviraj Chavan, and politicians from Maharashtra’s major opposition parties—the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The opposition accused the ruling alliance of failing to act quickly to address the damage, and all the leaders called for exceptions to the election campaign code of conduct so that substantial relief funds could be distributed directly to farmers. Pawar urged farmers not to commit suicide as they waited for the aid. By the last week of March, more than thirty had taken their own lives.

In Delhi on Friday the fourteenth, Pawar and Chavan met with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (a long-time ally of Pawar’s at the centre) and members of the Election Commission to try to push through a special relief package. The aid was needed to help farmers who had only last year faced the worst drought in four decades; but many politicians acknowledged that it would also benefit Maharashtra’s incumbent government in the upcoming polls, in which the NCP, in a seat-sharing agreement with the Congress, will contest from twenty-one of the state’s forty-eight Lok Sabha constituencies. One NCP leader told the news website Firstpost, “There will definitely be some positive impact on the Lok Sabha elections. So, our efforts are on to ensure that the relief to the farmers reaches them at the earliest.”

The following day, a large rally of farmers in eastern Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district threatened to vote for “none of the above” if relief funds did not reach them by 10 April, the first day of polling in the region. As part of the protest, the Indo-Asian News Service reported, the farmers performed a puja over garlanded photographs of Pawar and Chavan, praying “aloud to the almighty ‘to give them sense’ and urgently guide them to help the farming community of the state reeling under an agrarian crisis since the past ten years.” According to the leader of a farmers’ rights organisation, Rs 3,000 crore in other relief funds that had been promised in August 2013 had still not reached farmers in the area.

If the farmers feared that the state leadership, despite its high-profile meetings in the capital, would neglect them, perhaps it was partly because Pawar, who has held the nation’s agriculture portfolio for the last decade, had been devoting attention to another powerful constituency. He spent part of the previous month lobbying at the centre for a subsidy that would benefit exporters of milled sugar, many of whom come from western Maharashtra. Pawar has represented parliamentary and assembly constituencies in the region continuously since 1967, and most of the NCP’s seats are won there.

The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs—which includes Pawar and the union food minister, KV Thomas—met four times to negotiate the subsidy. Pawar, who initially had the support of the prime minister, hoped the package would total Rs 1,400 crore; Thomas, however, wanted to limit it to Rs 800 crore. The funds were unlikely to benefit farmers to any great extent, since most of their annual crop had already been sold to mills at rates that didn’t reflect a bolstered export price. (At the same time, arrears to farmers on the purchase of sugar cane had more than tripled, to Rs 10,000 crore, in the space of four months. This was despite the government, in December, giving sugar mills interest-free loans totalling Rs 6,600 crore with which they were supposed to repay their debts. Pawar had chaired the ministerial committee that proposed the loan package.)

Sonia Gandhi and Sharad Pawar in 2009. The two have maintained an uneasy alliance since Pawar revolted from the Congress in 1999. Kunal Patil / HT Photo

When the committee met on 11 February, the prime minister surprisingly sided with Thomas; walking out of the meeting, a visibly frustrated Pawar—who does not usually lose his cool—said he saw no point in attending future talks if decisions were going to take so long, according to a Maharashtra industrialist close to Thomas. Finally, the finance minister, P Chidambaram, who had backed Pawar throughout the process, pushed through export incentives that were more than 95 percent of the figure Pawar wanted. For all intents and purposes, the NCP leader had had his way.

THE EVENTS OF FEBRUARY and early March revealed something of Pawar’s outsized influence—far out of proportion to the handful of parliamentary and assembly seats under his control—over the politics of both Maharashtra, where he has been chief minister four times, and the country. (In late March, the election commission allowed the centre to pass a Rs 4000-crore relief package for storm-hit farmers.) But the fight over the export subsidy and the response to the storm also showed Pawar at a vulnerable moment of transition in his political journey—a time when he needs to consolidate the gains he has made during ten years of considerable influence at the centre as part of successive United Progressive Alliance governments, while also positioning himself to retain as much power as he can in whatever government emerges when election results are announced in May.

At the same time, Pawar—who was a mass leader in Maharashtra’s farming cooperative movement, in the 1960s and 1970s, and a member of one Congress faction or another until the late 1990s—appears to be losing ground with rural voters, who may increasingly sense that the NCP’s interests are not fully reconcilable with their own. In several recent elections, the party unexpectedly lost seats in areas where it has long been dominant.

Now, for the first time in forty-seven years, Pawar is giving up the fight for popularly elected office; on Friday, 31 January, the Maharashtra state assembly voted him into the Rajya Sabha unopposed. Pawar told me that he “would like younger people to come forward now. My colleagues insisted that I come into the Rajya Sabha for the sake of the party.” But the seventy-three-year-old Pawar’s position in the upper house of parliament is not a sinecure; instead, it will free him up to campaign throughout the state and across the country, while also keeping him in contention for the role he is said to desire most—the prime ministership. “He has been trying for the coveted post since 1991, but has been unable to secure it due to New Delhi politics,” the Congress home minister, Sushilkumar Shinde, who spent much of his early political career under Pawar’s wing, told reporters in January. The most dramatic of Pawar’s failed attempts to become prime minister led to his bitter expulsion from the Congress in 1999. This time around, many commentators believe that Pawar has an outside—but very real—shot at the top job.

Some people are attracted to politics by the trappings of power, but Pawar prefers to wield it. During eight stints in parliament, he has presided over several important ministries, including defence, agriculture and food. There are few leaders who grasp the system—and the levers of power that make it work—as well as he does. “Once he understands an issue, he brings to it that extra something that is political, what I would call the smell of the earth,” Chandra Iyengar, a senior Maharashtra bureaucrat who is close to Pawar and the NCP, said. “He knows what will cut ice and what will create a storm, and how to get around it.” The late BJP leader Pramod Mahajan used to say that Pawar “works like a monster,” and the Indian Express recently named him the twelfth most powerful person in the country (just below the BJP president, Rajnath Singh, but above the BJP’s leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj).

Recently, however, the sources—and consequences—of Pawar’s influence have come under increasing public scrutiny. In October, the Aam Aadmi Party alleged that the NCP leader and his nephew, Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister, Ajit Pawar, intentionally ran the state’s cooperative bank—the largest in Asia—into the ground by handing out bad loans to prominent sugar-mill operators. The AAP also accused them of forcing the sale of distressed sugar cooperatives to private companies at ludicrously low rates. In December, a whistle-blower and former bureaucrat who had implicated Ajit in a Rs 35,000-crore irrigation scam joined the AAP; then, in February, the party alleged that Ajit was also involved in a Rs 22,000-crore scam involving power distribution.

Pawar with supporters after rebelling from the Congress. “If you prostrate before the Gandhi family, they won’t respect you,” he said. BCCL

The AAP’s claims, which have not been substantiated, recall a slew of other corruption allegations against Pawar—relating, among other things, to agricultural imports and exports, irrigation schemes, land acquisition, cricket, the 2G cellular spectrum scam, disproportionate assets, an Enron-controlled power plant, and the development of a private hill station named Lavasa, outside of Pune. Many of these scandals took place after the United Progressive Alliance, of which the NCP is a member, came to power at the centre in 2004. One Congress member of parliament, who was close to Pawar before Pawar left the party in 1999, told me that Pawar “plays real estate as one plays poker. His friends are business people.” There have also been unproven accusations that Pawar has links to the underworld, including the Bombay gang leader Dawood Ibrahim. This March, the AAP announced that a former Indian Police Service officer, Suresh Khopade, will contest against Pawar’s daughter, Supriya Sule, for the Lok Sabha seat in Baramati, in Pune district, the constituency where Pawar has long held power. Going by the AAP’s record, it is likely that allegations of corruption and criminality against Pawar will be important weapons in the campaign.

Though Pawar has never been officially charged with malfeasance, the view that he is corrupt has gained significant traction in the public imagination. In one well-known incident, in November 2011, he was slapped across the face and denounced as a thief by a young man at a Delhi press conference. It is difficult to imagine that the charismatic Pawar of thirty or forty years ago would have been assaulted like that.

Whether the allegations of corruption prove true or not, they have contributed to a sense that Pawar’s influence is on the decline. Even some who believe that the Congress, despite its unpopularity in recent opinion polls, will be in a position to lead the next government reject the possibility of Pawar becoming prime minister. Two long-time Congress leaders told me that, after ten years of UPA rule at the centre and fifteen years of a joint Congress-NCP government in Maharashtra, they expect the NCP’s current tally of eight Lok Sabha seats to decrease in the coming elections.

But other commentators caution against underestimating Pawar. “What goes for him, even if he gets only six seats, is his tremendous network, and huge money power—you cannot even imagine this,” Kumar Ketkar, the editor of the Marathi daily Divya Marathi and a vocal critic of the NCP leader, said. Pawar, Ketkar continued, “will not trust even his best friend, and even his own followers do not trust him. They respect him and are awed by him.” A Maharashtra journalist who has followed Pawar’s career said that other NCP leaders “are afraid of Pawar—that if they leave him, he will finish them politically.” But the BJP parliamentarian Najma Heptullah, who was a long-time member of the Congress and a Pawar loyalist, said that the NCP leader stands by his friends. In his home state, he still has connections in every assembly constituency; one former Congress Rajya Sabha member said that Pawar “knows political workers inside out—their parents, uncles, aunts, children. He gives them his blessings and often also money to fight elections.”

Pawar’s relationships span the political spectrum. Over the years, he is believed to have partially funded the election campaigns of several regional parties, and he has shown a willingness to exploit links with BJP leaders to further his political career. In the late 1970s, he accepted the support of the BJP’s earlier avatar, the Janata Party, and became the chief minister of Maharashtra. In 1995, there was speculation that many independents who supported a BJP–Shiv Sena state government were close to him. Though he has always put himself forward as a progressive, secular leader, in recent weeks he vacillated between righteous denunciation and cautious prevarication when it came to Narendra Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots in 2002—and then issued statements that he won’t ally with the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance. (Many analysts saw this as nothing more than an attempt to compel the Congress to let his party contest more Lok Sabha seats.)

If Pawar’s previous attempts to manoeuvre himself into the prime minister’s office are any indication, however, he may never stake a public claim to the job. Some senior politicians say that his primary concern is to stay relevant in Maharashtra. The former general secretary of the Communist Party of India, AB Bardhan, told me, “A few months ago, I asked him, ‘Do you want to be a leader of Maharashtra or of India?’” If the answer was Maharashtra, Bardhan told him, Pawar could not leave his alliance with the Congress; if it was India, he had “no other alternative” but to join a third-front government, led by the Left. “Pawar said, ‘Maharashtra is my first priority.’ I said, ‘This is a misfortune for us and for you, because all of us feel you are capable.’”


“MY FATHER IS WHERE HE IS BECAUSE of his own electoral merit and not because someone likes him,” Supriya Sule told me when I met her in the central hall of Parliament House in February. The fifteenth Lok Sabha was nearing the end of its last session, and the atmosphere was charged, as members discussed the upcoming elections over coffee. Fellow politicians periodically came up to Sule to wish her luck, but usually added that she was sure to win from her father’s old constituency. Sule continued, “He is number three in the cabinet today even though he has only eight seats in the Lok Sabha.”

Perhaps the most critical period in Pawar’s journey to the prominence Sule described came in the late 1990s, when he realised that he would always hit a ceiling if he remained within the Congress. This was a particularly turbulent time in national politics: between 1996 and 1998, there were four different premierships. The Congress was in a state of disarray. In 1996, its tally of parliamentary seats plummeted from 232 to 140, almost sixty seats lower than at any point since the late 1970s, at the end of the Emergency. Many leaders began to gravitate towards other parties, and HD Deve Gowda became prime minister at the head of a Janata Dal government backed from outside by the Congress.

Pawar in the mid 1980s, around the time Rajiv Gandhi brought him back into the main Congress party, thereby ceding the opposition in Maharashtra to the BJP and the Shiv Sena. BCCL

After ten months, the Congress president, Sitaram Kesri, decided to withdraw the party’s support for Deve Gowda, toppling the government. The move infuriated fellow Congress politicians, who were wary of fighting fresh elections. But Kesri hoped to become prime minister himself; there were reports that he called the Indian president, Shankar Dayal Sharma, to beg for the position. When it became clear that Sharma had no intention of inviting Kesri to lead the government, disaffected Congress leaders began contemplating a revolt.

At the time, Pawar, who had fought Kesri for the post of party president, was the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha. He had been the chief minister of Maharashtra twice, and a Congress member of parliament on and off since 1984. He had also served as defence minister in the PV Narasimha Rao government in the early 1990s. Congress members of parliament began gathering in Pawar’s home to discuss deposing Kesri; around forty of them were prepared to support Pawar as party president and prime minister. “It was a matter of just passing a resolution against Kesri,” Najma Heptullah, the BJP parliamentarian and former Congress member, told me. She said this was Pawar’s “best chance to make it” as prime minister.

In the end, Pawar refused to battle publicly against Kesri. Many people said that Pranab Mukherjee, then a member of the party’s highest body, the Congress Working Committee, prevailed upon Pawar not to risk the embarrassment of possible failure. In the 1998 general elections—Deve Gowda had been replaced by IK Gujral, whose government collapsed after little more than a year—the Congress, under Pawar’s stewardship, won thirty-three of Maharashtra’s forty-eight Lok Sabha seats, but the party lost the election nationally. When the BJP formed a coalition government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mamata Banerjee, who was then a Congress member of parliament, publicly suggested that Pawar be made the chairman of the Congress’s legislative caucus, the Congress Parliamentary Party, and this led to his being anointed the leader of the opposition.

Vajpayee’s government, backed by thirteen regional parties, was a tenuous one, and as 1998 wore on into 1999 it looked increasingly vulnerable. The AIADMK party leader J Jayalalithaa withdrew from the coalition that April. This was followed by a vote of confidence on the floor of the Lok Sabha. The Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati had told coalition heads that she would back Vajpayee, but Pawar moved to create an opening for himself. “He had networked with Mayawati,” Ketkar, the editor of Divya Marathi, said. “He talked to her and, at the last moment, she decided to vote against the Vajpayee government.” It fell by one vote.

Pawar, then the union defence minister, on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, on 20 July 1991. He spent the 1990s shuffling between the chief minister’s office in Bombay and various union ministries. BCCL

A chance to form a new government, and a path to the prime minister’s office, now seemed to open up for Pawar. But other, more important power centres had also emerged in the Congress. In 1997, party leaders convinced Rajiv’s widow, Sonia, to join the party despite her reluctance, and, in 1998, she took the party reins.

According to Ketkar, a “cold war” developed between Sonia and Pawar. If Pawar nominated one person for a post, Sonia would nominate another. Pawar also felt humiliated by what he called other “pinpricks”: before the elections, the executive group of the Congress Parliamentary Party had been reconstituted without his consultation; delegations of Congress members of parliament were sent abroad without his approval as the leader of the opposition; and, in parliament, other members of the party would freely sit in the chair reserved for the leader of the opposition, which is supposed to be sacrosanct.

Still, Pawar believed he could count on the inexperienced Sonia’s support to form the next government. “He thought Sonia Gandhi would bless him,” Ketkar said. Instead, she made her own move, in April 1999. “There were MPs who told me that I should stake a claim” to the prime minister’s office, Pawar told me. “But Sonia Gandhi went to KR Narayanan”—the president—to say that she could rally a majority government of 272 seats under her own leadership. When Sonia left her meeting with Narayanan and walked through the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan, she told waiting journalists, “We have 272, and more are coming.”

“It was then that Pawar decided that he would come out of the Congress,” Ketkar said. “And that there was no possibility of him becoming prime minister” while he remained with the party.

ULTIMATELY, Sonia could not mobilise the numbers necessary to form a government, and Narayanan called for fresh elections. Pawar flexed his muscles within the Congress by helping to bring allies in line, and positioned himself for another shot at the prime ministership. When the Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad came back from seat-sharing negotiations with an offer from the AIADMK chief, Jayalalithaa, for the Congress to contest eight precincts in Tamil Nadu, Pawar was sent to Chennai. He came back with a promise of fourteen. (The alliance later fell apart, ahead of the elections.)

On his return, it was Sonia to whom Pawar had to report. “I came back and briefed Sonia-ji that morning,” he said. For Pawar, who had clawed his way into the Congress’s decision-making bodies by dint of his own political nous and hard work, the rule of an inexperienced dynast must have been an affront. According to a Maharashtra journalist covering the Congress at the time, the party was placing Pawar’s opponents in the state’s district committees, and “this made Pawar mad”; it signalled that he “was not of any worth to the high command, and he decided not to put up with this nonsense. He used to say, ‘It was OK up to Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, but kya sabko sashtang pranam karna parhega?’” (will I have to prostrate myself before every generation?)

A bureaucrat and a politician who were both close to Pawar during this period told me that he was mulling over the possibility of attacking Sonia’s foreign origins, and had reached out to friends within the party to gauge their reactions. According to a senior NCP leader who has been close to several Congress prime ministers, the plan was conceived by Narasimha Rao, who had felt humiliated by Sonia when he was heading the government between 1991 and 1996. But the journalist Kalyani Shankar, who has known Rao for many years, said that “Rao may have been sympathetic to the idea but there was no way that he would have encouraged a split in the Congress.” Before he flew to Chennai to meet Jayalalithaa, Pawar summoned the party leaders PA Sangma, Tariq Anwar and Najma Heptullah to a late-night meeting at his home in Delhi, where they planned their rebellion.

Soon after Pawar’s return to Delhi, there was a sitting of the Congress Working Committee. After some opening remarks from Sonia, Sangma began the assault, arguing that Sonia’s foreign origins would become problematic for the party. All hell broke loose, with several other leaders shouting down the idea. The senior leaders Arjun Singh, RK Dhawan and Ambika Soni all supported Sonia. Pawar told me he was among the last to speak. “I said I was in Bombay University and a girl student had asked me, ‘Can’t the Congress get anyone born in India to lead it?’” he told me. “But I said this would not be an election issue.”

Sonia, realising that a revolt was brewing, walked out. Arjun Singh rushed after her, barefoot, to try to bring her back to the meeting, but failed. In a sycophantic 2006 Malayalam biography of Sonia Gandhi that was recently translated into English, the current food minister, KV Thomas, whom Pawar fought over the sugar export subsidy, devoted a chapter titled “Backstabbing” to the incident. Before leaving the meeting, Thomas writes, Pawar, Sangma and Anwar told Pranab Mukherjee, then a senior Congress leader, “This is our last CWC.”

According to Pawar, after the meeting Sangma shared with Anwar and him a well-drafted letter addressed to the Congress president. It said that only one born on Indian soil should lead India, and suggested that the Congress manifesto call for an amendment to the constitution to require that the offices of the president, vice president and prime minister be held only by natural-born Indian citizens. Pawar, Sangma and Anwar signed the letter, then gave it to Mukherjee. Sonia soon abdicated the party presidency, but a mob of Congress workers gathered outside her house at 10 Janpath to demand that she withdraw her resignation. Before long, it became clear that few Congress leaders were willing to back Pawar. His plan had failed. “I left by the evening flight for Pune,” he said. “The next day they expelled us—Sangma, Tariq and me—from the party,” and Sonia returned to the presidency.

ACCORDING TO THE FORMER CONGRESS MEMBER of the Rajya Sabha with whom I spoke, Pawar used to tell his followers, “If you prostrate before the Gandhi family, they won’t respect you. Apni takat banao” (Make yourselves strong). Then, the Congress leader continued, “you can hit back from a position of strength and they will give you what you want.”

This philosophy began to pay dividends almost immediately after Pawar revolted from Sonia and formed the NCP. Pawar launched the party at a massive rally in Shivaji Park, in Mumbai, on 10 June 1999. He told me the crowd was 400,000 strong. As the journalist Samar Khadas put it, “This is a tradition here in Maharashtra—that whoever is against Delhi becomes popular amongst the masses.”

Together with Sangma and Anwar, Pawar began campaigning aggressively for that September’s elections. According to Kumar Ketkar, Pawar created a “zabardast mahaul”—a fantastic environment: “There used to be virtual silence in the Congress office and vibrancy in the NCP office, with a large number of young people milling around there.” The Maharashtra media, Ketkar added, “was with the NCP.”

The party contested 132 parliamentary precincts and 223 Maharashtra assembly districts that year. Although the BJP and its NDA allies were able to form the central government (riding, many thought, on the nationalistic sentiments provoked by the NDA’s successful nuclear weapons tests in 1998, and by the Kargil war with Pakistan), Pawar was able to secure significant political power for himself in Maharashtra, where the NCP won 58 assembly seats—enough to determine which parties would form the state’s ruling coalition.

Recognising Pawar’s leverage, Vajpayee and LK Advani offered him a prominent position at the centre if he joined the NDA government, according to the BJP leader Najma Heptullah. Heptullah said she telephoned Pawar at the time and urged him not to ally with the Congress. But a role at the centre would mean wielding far less power in Maharashtra, where Pawar had to deliver for his base. Despite their mutual suspicion, Pawar and Sonia Gandhi realised that without a Congress–NCP alliance, they would have to cede the state to a predominantly BJP and Shiv Sena government. They were pragmatic enough to let bygones be bygones.

“Sonia-ji came to my house, and said, ‘Jo ho gaya, so ho gaya (What’s done is done). We should now work together to form a government,’” Pawar said. NCP leaders discussed the alliance, he added, “and came to the conclusion that we could go with the Congress but not with the BJP.” The NCP and Congress alliance has so far ruled Maharashtra for fifteen years.


PAWAR’S MUTINY IN 1999 was not the first time he had broken with the Gandhi clan over its leadership of the Congress party. During three decades as a popular leader in Maharashtra, he had developed a source of political authority that did not emanate from the dynasty—and, like other leaders with independent followings, he was not fully trusted by the party’s high command.

Pawar had been on the wrong side of the Gandhis since at least as early as 1969, when Indira Gandhi moved to split the Congress over the election of the Indian president. Pawar’s mentor, the Maharashtra statesman Yashwantrao Chavan, after promising to back Gandhi’s nominee, came out in support of Sanjiva Reddy, who was promoted by the Congress’s anti-Gandhi faction, the Syndicate. Reddy lost, Gandhi seceded and formed a new Congress party, and Chavan and Pawar stayed with the old guard.

A decade later, Pawar decided it was in his own best interests to jettison long-time allies. In 1978, he led a desertion of thirty-five legislative assembly members from Chavan’s Congress party in Maharashtra, and joined hands with the Janata Party to form a new state government; the thirty-eight-year-old Pawar became the state’s youngest-ever chief minister. One of Gandhi’s most powerful aides, RK Dhawan, told me that Gandhi never forgave Chavan for turning his back on her in 1969, and that when Pawar broke ranks with the old Congress in 1978, “he was only following his mentor.”

Pawar told me that, apart from his mother, no one had influenced him more than Chavan. Pawar’s parents were relatively well-off Maharashtrian farmers who belonged to the Peasants and Workers Party, which emphasised social reform, girls’ education and rationalist thinking. At the age of nineteen, Pawar began working as a political organiser. The first major agitation he participated in was the movement to liberate Goa from the Portuguese, in 1966. “Then I joined the Youth Congress in Pune city and became the Maharashtra Youth Congress chief,” Pawar said. “I had decided to join the Congress because of Jawaharlal Nehru and his modern thinking, but in Maharashtra I was attracted to Chavan. He was well read and a cultured leader, a pukka democrat, a man of character who encouraged youngsters.” In 1967, Pawar fought his first election, for the state assembly, from Baramati. He won, and later became the general secretary of the state Congress committee. “I used to stay in the Congress office in Dadar,” Pawar continued. “It was a one-room office. That was my home.” Chavan, then the union home minister, used to refer to Pawar as his adopted son.

By abandoning Chavan—and winning—Pawar proved his mettle, and other Congress leaders, including Gandhi, took note. As the monsoon session opened in July 1979, a wave of defections swept through parliament. The ruling Janata Party coalition, after a turbulent two years in power under Prime Minister Morarji Desai, began to collapse, and Indira Gandhi lost her position as the leader of the opposition. By the end of the month, Desai was forced to resign. To avoid fresh elections, president Reddy invited Chavan, the head of an anti-Indira Congress faction that was now the second largest party in parliament, to form a new government. With the possibility of a premiership before him, Chavan vacillated. “Chavan was diffident,” the veteran journalist Vijay Sanghvi, who covered Congress politics in the 1970s, told me. “He didn’t have the confidence that he would be able to manage the Janata Party and Congress coalition.” According to later reports, Reddy told Chavan, “If I had given this chance to Sharad Pawar, he would have not only grasped it and formed a government, he would have proved his majority by now, and started functioning as prime minister.”

A Vespa plant in Baramati, Pawar’s long-time constituency in western Maharashtra. Pawar said Baramati is what he’s most proud of. Rafiq Maqbool / AP photo

In the January 1980 general elections, Indira Gandhi’s Congress crushed a fragmented opposition and was voted back into power at the centre with over 350 seats. In February, Gandhi reached out to Pawar, who for two years had led a stable coalition government in Maharashtra. “I got a call from Giani Zail Singh, who was the home minister at the time, to come to Delhi immediately,” Pawar said. “At the airport, his secretary received me and drove me straight to North Block. ‘You have to meet the PM,’ Giani-ji told me.” Singh took him to Willingdon Crescent, where the prime minister was staying. Gandhi told Pawar that she admired the way he ran the government in his state, and Singh exhorted him, as a youngster, to join their Congress faction and strengthen Gandhi’s hand.

Although his party had won only one Lok Sabha seat from Maharashtra, Pawar made a pitch for a leadership role within Indira’s Congress. He was rebuffed, and returned to Bombay. “I told my wife Pratibha to pack our bags immediately, and we vacated the chief ministerial house by 4 am the next day,” Pawar said. Within hours of his return, Indira Gandhi had imposed president’s rule in the state.

AFTER BEING SACKED BY INDIRA GANDHI, Pawar was out of power in Maharashtra for eight years. He used much of that time to strengthen his base in the state, and to build personal relationships with fellow opposition leaders across the country, including Chandra Shekhar, Biju Patnaik, Parkash Singh Badal and Jyoti Basu. Many other influential politicians, such as AK Antony, PC Chacko, Ambika Soni, KP Unnikrishnan and Dharam Bir Sinha, joined Pawar’s faction, the Congress (Socialist) party. But the Gandhi family remained ascendant. Following the assassination of Indira in 1984, her faction of the party, now led by Rajiv Gandhi, won an unprecedented 404 seats in parliament, while veteran opposition leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee were defeated. Rajiv became prime minister.

Pawar, however, once again demonstrated the depth of his political appeal; he won his first Lok Sabha election, from his home constituency of Baramati, with more than 60 percent of the vote. Pawar told me, “When they called me a Maratha strongman, they were not referring to a community to which I belong, but to the state.” Still, he was hamstrung by Rajiv’s supermajority in parliament, and in 1985 he decided to return to state politics. He contested and won the Baramati constituency, and his party secured 54 of Maharashtra’s 288 assembly seats; Rajiv’s Congress won 161, and Pawar gave up his place in parliament to become the leader of Maharashtra’s opposition.

Rajiv eventually used his strength to bring Pawar back together with his faction of the Congress. In 1986, according to DP Tripathi, the general secretary of the NCP, who was then an aide to Rajiv, the prime minister was eager to use Pawar’s extensive support to check the advance of an increasingly popular Shiv Sena. (Even at Indira’s funeral, in 1984, Pawar told me, Rajiv had “caught hold of my hand and said, ‘Kabhi toh miliye’”—meet me sometime.)

Many felt that Rajiv was being large-hearted by taking Pawar back, but Tripathi told him he was making a mistake. Rajiv asked him to draft a letter explaining his position. “I wrote it and gave it to him personally,” Tripathi said. “It was between the two of us. But the same night Pawar had a copy of the letter in his hand. Rajiv had given it to someone to keep, but Pawar had links in the Congress at all levels then, and he continues to have them even now.”

Tripathi and other Congress leaders argued that assimilating Pawar into the party would cede the opposition space to the BJP and the Shiv Sena, allowing them to gain a more secure footing in Maharashtra. “That is precisely what happened,” Tripathi said. Pawar agreed: “The Shiv Sena got an impetus and youngsters started to leave us to join them. I remember Arun Nehru opposed the merger, predicting that people would gravitate to the Shiv Sena. He was right.” Tripathi felt the move was also a “major blunder” for Pawar: “If he had not come in at that time, he would have become prime minister at some point in the following years.”

Instead, Pawar became Maharashtra’s chief minister again, in June 1988. “One day I got a call from Rajiv at 4 am,” Pawar told me. “He said, ‘Come to Delhi this morning.’” In Delhi, “Rajiv told me, ‘You have to lead the government in Maharashtra. Go back tomorrow. SB Chavan’”—who was chief minister at the time—“‘will resign the day after tomorrow at 4 pm, and the party meeting has been called and your name has been suggested as CM.’ I came back and at the airport itself there was security behind me.” SB Chavan became the union finance minister, and Pawar took over in Bombay.

In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi was voted out of office, and replaced as prime minister by VP Singh. By the following year, he had started to develop serious doubts about the loyalty of various chief ministers, including Pawar, who was thought to be suspiciously intimate with Singh. The Congress member of parliament who was close to Pawar and mentioned his affection for real estate deals said, “Congressmen told Rajiv that Pawar was growing too big for his boots—so it was decided to remove him.”

The following year, “Rajiv Gandhi asked me to organise Pawar’s removal as CM,” RK Dhawan told me. According to the Congress member of parliament, the party leader GK Moopanar was dispatched to Pawar. Moopanar told Pawar to submit a one-line resignation letter, citing health issues. Afterwards, Pawar held a meeting with supporters. “I told him never give a one-line resignation,” the member of parliament said. “You must do a proper letter and give your reasons. I worked on that letter. It was a beautiful letter. Two days later, Rajiv asked him who had drafted it.” Rajiv let Pawar continue for a while as chief minister. Ultimately, fate intervened, and Rajiv was assassinated on 21 May 1991.


THE 1990S WERE HECTIC YEARS FOR PAWAR, as he shifted back and forth between the chief minister’s office in Bombay and various ministries in Delhi. He made one overt bid for the premiership during this decade—against Narasimha Rao, in the elections following Rajiv Gandhi’s death—but backed down in exchange for the defence portfolio. For the most part, his focus seems to have been on further solidifying his power in Maharashtra.

Two examples of gross financial mismanagement in the state during this period raised serious questions about how Pawar wielded his influence. These scandals roughly corresponded to a decade-long period in which the costs of electoral campaigning shot up dramatically; it was also a time when Pawar’s growing independence from the Congress party—which culminated in his rebellion against Sonia Gandhi in 1999—would have made it necessary for him to develop his own flows of capital for fighting elections.

One of the first high-profile scandals under Pawar’s watch involved a $3-billion power plant in Dabhol, western Maharashtra, run by the American company Enron (which went bankrupt in 2001 after the discovery that widespread accounting fraud at the company was hiding massive debts). A power-purchase agreement, which compelled the state to buy electricity from Enron at extortionate rates, was negotiated in secret and signed by the Maharashtra State Electricity Board, or MSEB, in 1993, when Pawar was the chief minister.

When details of the agreement leaked out, the project came under intense criticism. As an article in Economic & Political Weekly later summarised, “It was a one-sided, badly negotiated contract that contained provisions which defied every logic”: “the project itself was unwarranted, the design was sub-optimal, the choice of the fuel … was wrong, the plant cost was much higher than that of comparable plants, the equipment had technical problems, all risks were borne by MSEB, and many financial and legal provisions were blatantly one-sided and unjustified.”

Pawar and his daughter, the Lok Sabha member Supriya Sule, who has reportedly had conflicts with her cousin, the Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar. “Supriya is not cut out for state politics,” Pawar told me. Sonu Mehta / HT Photo

Many commentators have attributed the project’s problems to political and administrative incompetence, but Pawar is known to study a subject deeply before taking a decision on it. A couple of years before the Enron deal began taking shape, a state policy was drafted to reserve 30 percent of government jobs, and 33 percent of seats in municipal bodies and panchayati raj institutions, for women. Pawar held sixteen consultations with various groups, according to Chandra Iyengar, the Maharashtra bureaucrat who was close to Pawar and his government. (Pawar succeeded in pushing the reform through, over the objections of many of his colleagues, making him one of the first chief ministers to enact such legislation.) This was also the case with other policies, Iyengar said; Pawar would take his time to understand the pros and cons of an issue.

Pawar’s daughter, Supriya Sule, echoed this general view of her father’s administrative acumen: “No collector can bullshit him and get away. He has made the best of the system and done development work without blabbing about it.” She added, “He is an able administrator in any crisis. He is exceptionally patient, and a good listener. And a quick decision-maker. And completely focused. Whether it is with my daughter, or with the prime minister, the attention is totally ours.”

In the Enron case, a senior Maharashtra bureaucrat, K Padmanabhaiah, explicitly opposed the deal, believing that “it might lead to the government of Maharashtra getting mortgaged,” the former Congress Rajya Sabha member I spoke with said. Padmanabhaiah, who was a member of the Maharashtra IAS cadre and worked in the state for several decades, told me, “There was nothing in the deal for India, and I opposed it. In Maharashtra, the style is that we can write on the file what we think and the minister can overrule you.”

The BJP and the Shiv Sena came to power in Maharashtra for the first time in 1995, after campaigning heavily on allegations of corruption in the Enron deal. During the elections, the Congress had refused to grant tickets to many Pawar loyalists who subsequently won as independents and gave outside support to the new government. Once in power, the BJP and Shiv Sena, too, became advocates for the Dabhol project, and renegotiated even worse terms for the state. Within five years, the price of electricity from the plant had become so high that Maharashtra defaulted on its purchasing obligations, and a judicial inquiry was mooted. Pawar, back in power as part of a Congress-led alliance in the state, threatened to bring down the government if the probe went forward.

By 2005, the plant was still mired in controversy, and new negotiations were taking place at the centre. P Chidambaram, then the finance minister, recused himself because he had previously represented Enron before the Bombay High Court, but the negotiations included the planning commission deputy chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who had helped Enron overcome one of the most important statutory obstacles to the project, and Pawar, who was then the minister for agriculture. The next year, 83 percent of the beleaguered, debt-ridden plant was sold to three public companies—the National Thermal Power Corporation, Gas Authority of India Limited, and the Maharashtra State Electricity Board, whose chairman is Ajit Pawar.

WHILE THE ENRON DEAL WAS DEVELOPING, Sharad Pawar also began to strengthen his hold over Maharashtra’s sugar production industry and the banking sector that supports it. High liquidity and extensive political control is widely thought to make the industry an important source of campaign funding in states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. In Maharashtra, much of the money in the industry flows into it from cooperative banks. What’s more, farmers are obligated to sell their sugar cane to specific mills, making the companies that own the factories important centres of local political power.

In the mid 1990s, the state’s sugar factories became increasingly burdened with debt; by early 1997, only nineteen of its 116 cooperative mills were making a profit, and the sector’s accumulated losses totalled Rs 700 crore. Still, the state decided to allow new mills to enter the market. By 2005, Maharashtra had 190 sugar plants; seventy-seven had been shuttered, and another forty-three were in the red, according to an analysis in Economic & Political Weekly.

As ailing mills shut down, they were frequently privatised. This process was accelerated in 1998 by a Government of India order that opened the sector up to unlicensed players. At the same time, farmers who found sugar cane production to be increasingly unprofitable, and who were often owed money by defaulting cooperative mills, were deciding in ever-greater numbers to sell their property. In the past decade or so, the price per acre of agricultural land in some parts of western Maharashtra reportedly shot up forty or fifty times to Rs 10 lakh.

Pawar was by no means the original source of the trouble in Maharashtra’s sugar industry. Sugar-producing cooperatives have been subject to political control since their advent in the years following Independence, and policy problems have led to massive fluctuations in the market, and in farmers’ incomes, since at least as early as the 1970s. But the decline of the mills seems to have accelerated as his political hold on Maharashtra tightened.

In early 1999, Ajit Pawar was elected chairperson of the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank, which was founded in 1911 and became the apex financial institution for all of the state’s cooperative lenders in 1954. At the time Ajit took over, the MSCB reportedly had total deposits and working capital of Rs 17,000 crore.

Throughout the next decade, the MSCB was largely controlled by the Pawars and other NCP leaders. (Although Ajit was not always the chairman, he continued to sit on the board.) The bank began lending freely to distressed sugar mills; the loans were backed by guarantees that unpaid debts would be covered by the Maharashtra government. During this time, the bank repeatedly flouted the directives of its regulator, the Reserve Bank of India, which had demanded that the bank reform its poor governance and lending policies.

Finally, in 2011, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, or NABARD, which among other things helps oversee the country’s cooperative lenders, reported gross financial and administrative irregularities at the MSCB. The RBI dissolved the MSCB’s board, and took control of the institution. According to the NABARD report, over 20 percent of its loans were not being repaid; this contributed to an annual operating loss of more than Rs 1,000 crore. The bank scored just one point, out of a possible forty-eight, on measures of institutional health including income, loan worthiness, and management quality.

In addition to frivolous expenses—such as Rs 1 lakh for a custom number plate for the bank’s chairman, the NCP leader Manikrao Patil—and otherwise unsound loans to NCP and Congress politicians and their family members, around half of the MSCB’s loans had been made to the state’s debt-ridden sugar factories, which accounted for six out of every ten of the bank’s non-performing assets. NCP and Congress politicians owned many of the defaulting mills, whose debts ran into hundreds of crores.


PERHAPS NOTHING SHOWCASES PAWAR’S POLITICS as well as his old constituency, Baramati, which he represented continuously, in either the state assembly or parliament, from 1967 to 2009 (when he won the neighbouring Lok Sabha constituency of Madha). If the roots of Pawar’s power sink deep into Maharashtra’s agricultural, banking and real estate sectors, Baramati—where, like in other parts of the state, Pawar is known as “Saheb”—is its flower.

Anasuya Gargate is a housewife from a village called Atpadi, in southern Maharashtra, who married a farmer in Baramati thirty years ago. “At that time, it was a little larger than a village, with probably no more than ten thousand people,” Gargate said. “Today, as you can see, it is a thriving town. It has grown in every area—education, industry, agriculture, bio-technology. You name it and you can see it here.” Today, 55,000 people live in the town.

In many ways, Baramati reflects not only Pawar’s direct interventions, but also broader transformations in the country’s agricultural regions, like the shift from farming to real estate development. These have accelerated dramatically in the past ten years, during the time that Pawar has been the union minister for agriculture. Although his policy-making at Krishi Bhavan bears an uncertain relation to the scale and pace of change, several commentators have said that the growth of agricultural production and prices is one of the unacknowledged success stories of the UPA. Others, however, assert that the growth in the sector has been skewed towards those who were already better off a decade ago. As a recent article in the Economic Times put it, “the larger farmer has benefited more than the smaller farmer, the trader more than the farmer, the powerful more than the powerless”—the result, it seems, of increasing consolidation, globalisation and volatility in agricultural markets.

On a wintry day in December last year, Pawar took me around Baramati town and his many accomplishments there. While farmers in other parts of the state continue to commit suicide because of debt, drought and declining returns from their smallholdings, the Baramati area has a first-class water-management system. It is famous for its drip irrigation and its seedless grapes, including a variety called “Sharad,” which are exported around the world. Its sugar and milk cooperatives, its modern industrial units, its textile park and its educational institutions are all flourishing. The town is one of the most industrialised in western Maharashtra. It’s hard not to take the view that every legislator should bring a similar level of development to his or her constituency.

Pawar first took me to inspect the site where President Pranab Mukherjee was due to inaugurate a building in three weeks’ time. Pawar is tall and broad, and wore a white khadi safari suit. He went over the project’s progress bit by bit. He seemed completely conversant with the details, and unwilling to leave any of the arrangements for the president’s visit to his aides. Pawar is at his most comfortable in Baramati, Supriya Sule said. He normally starts his day at 8.30 or 9 am, but in Baramati he is out by 7.

At a personal level, Pawar is a courteous man. I recalled something the NCP general secretary, DP Tripathi, told me: “Once I had gone to his village, Kathewadi, with him and we had finished eating lunch. But Pawar kept sitting. I finally asked, ‘Should we not get up and wash our hands?’ Pawar said he had not wanted to get up because it would have disturbed the drivers, who were eating not far away, in the midst of their meal. This spoke volumes to me about the man.” Pawar is also socially progressive. At the time his daughter was born, in June 1969, there was a nationwide emphasis on family planning; Pawar publicly announced that he was getting a vasectomy. When one of his supporters asked him who would light his funeral pyre and perform his last rites, he replied, “My daughter will do my kiryakaram.”

In Baramati, Pawar and I next accosted a group of denim-clad girls outside the town’s college of biotechnology. Over the last fifty years, Pawar has created a network of educational institutions in the area. Gargate’s children studied in an English-language school founded in memory of Pawar’s mother, Sharadatai, who staunchly supported women’s education. The girls outside the college seemed confident, and told us they were doing their master’s degrees. They asked to be photographed with Pawar.

Pawar’s stamp is everywhere on the town. A museum built by Pawar is named after Appasaheb, his older brother. There is also an impressive two-storey museum dedicated to Pawar himself. It houses photographs of him with personalities from India and abroad, clippings about the major events in his political journey, mementos he has been given, and memorabilia and pens—he is a connoisseur of pens—that he has collected on his travels around the world. Pawar said his wife, Pratibha, kept these things carefully over the years.

One of the most remarkable operations in Baramati is Dynamix Dairy, the country’s largest milk-production and milk-products complex. Almost all of the big multinational dairy brands, including Britannia and Nestle, use the Dynamix facility, which also packages fruit juice for Tropicana and iced tea for Lipton.

Dynamix Dairy reportedly buys 400,000 litres of milk every day from Baramati Doodh Uthpadak Sangh, a dairy cooperative controlled by Ajit Pawar. The majority stakeholder in the dairy is an American firm named Schreiber Foods, but the operation was founded by an industrialist named KM Goenka, whose family still owns part of it. Goenka’s son Vinod is the cofounder of Dynamix Balwa Realty, which has been implicated in the multi-billion-dollar 2G cellular spectrum scam. In 2011, both Vinod and his partner, Shahid Balwa, were arrested in connection with the case. In a statement to the Central Bureau of Investigation, the corporate lobbyist Niira Radia reportedly said that she believed Pawar was a “key player” in DB Realty. (She also claimed that Pawar helped procure a 2G licence for Swan Telecom, a subsidiary of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Telecom.) KM Goenka has denied that Pawar was involved in setting up the dairy, and has said that Pawar’s family has no stake in the operation. Pawar has said that he knows the Goenkas and has been a supporter of the dairy operation, but has denied having any relationship with Balwa, or any stake in DB Realty. He has also denied the allegations reportedly made by Radia in her statement to the CBI.

Later, as Pawar and I visited other local institutions, I asked him what has given him the greatest satisfaction in his life. He replied, “Creating this.”

After our day-long tour of the town, Pawar and I went to his house. I was wilting with exhaustion, but he went on to meet a number of people who were waiting to see him. Then he sat down to critique a documentary that was being made about Sule’s achievements in the constituency, with a view to using it in her forthcoming election campaign. At one point Pawar told me, “I come to my constituency on the last day of campaigning at 4 pm”—campaigning ends at 5 pm—“and address a meeting. That is all I need to do.”

“Baramati has grown with the growth of the Pawars,” Gargate said earlier. “He may have his faults and may have done well for himself, but he has also done well for the people of Baramati.” Yogesh Jadhav, the managing director of the Pudhari group of Marathi newspapers, once told the journalist Sujata Anandan, “When we studied history as kids, we were told that Poona once belonged to the Peshwas. The next generation will learn that Pune belongs to the Pawars.”

SHORTLY BEFORE THE GENERAL ELECTIONS IN 2004, Pawar discovered the recurrence of a mouth cancer he had first been treated for in 1999. As news of his condition spread, it was accompanied by rumours that the NCP would soon break up. Within days of his fresh diagnosis, however, Pawar was back to electioneering, and a rally was held in Mumbai’s Shanmukhanand Hall to launch the NCP’s campaign. The journalist Samar Khadas recalled, “It was a Sunday and it was raining. Pawar gave one of his best ever speeches that day. He said something to this effect: ‘I am hearing all kinds of news—Saheb has almost gone; he has only a few days left. But let me tell you this: I am here, and I am going to create leaders out of you all sitting here. I will tour through the length and breadth of Maharashtra.’ He got a standing ovation.”

Now, ten years later, it’s easy to think that Pawar’s star is once again in decline. At the centre, he has continued to scrimmage with Sonia Gandhi, and actively resisted the passage of her cherished food-security bill. Although he was one of the very few legislators that Manmohan Singh named in his farewell speech to parliament on 21 February, thanking him for the growth in the country’s agricultural output, a former Congress colleague of Pawar told me that Pawar later complained to him that Singh’s government had not done enough to highlight his achievements. In Maharashtra, Pawar has battled with Prithviraj Chavan, the Congress chief minister, over a range of issues, including the latter’s decision to pursue a probe into the Rs 35,000-crore irrigation scam that took place while Ajit Pawar held the state’s irrigation portfolio. (A report on the scam by the state government later denied any wrongdoing on Ajit’s part.) And, ever since the formation of the NCP, Pawar has insisted on fielding an NCP candidate from Chavan’s constituency of Karad.

According to the Congress Rajya Sabha member with whom I spoke, Pawar recently lamented that he no longer knows the names of NCP workers’ grandchildren. At the same time, the first fissures of a succession battle seem to be appearing in the party, with Pawar and Supriya Sule on one side, and Ajit Pawar on the other. Sule has been a member of parliament for two terms—first in the Rajya Sabha, from 2006 to 2009, and then in the Lok Sabha, after she was elected from Baramati. Ajit, the deputy chief minister in Maharashtra, seems to have a stronger hold over the party organisation in the state. Although Sule always refers to Ajit as her “brother,” tensions have reportedly emerged over Sule’s political activities in the state, including a 2011 yatra she organised to mobilise Maharashtra’s women. Pawar told me in December that Ajit would continue to focus on the state, while Sule would remain at the centre. “Supriya is not cut out for state politics,” he said. “Her interest is national and international.”

It’s difficult to say what sort of toll Pawar’s periodic clashes with the Congress leadership, and the tensions within the NCP, will take on his political fortunes in 2014 and beyond. Money may count for more than wholehearted support when it comes to securing, and maintaining, power; yet, apart from his clash with the Gandhi family, the perception that Pawar has big money may act as the greatest obstacle in his journey towards the top. That said, for Pawar to continue having his way at the centre, as he did with the export subsidy, it looks likely that it would have to be at the head of a government of regional parties supported from outside by the Congress. Moreover, given Pawar’s health and his age, this election and its aftermath may well be his last chance to become the prime minister.

Pawar’s ties to other regional leaders are incomparably strong. He continues to have close links with Mamata Banerjee, and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal has given the NCP a seat to contest in Bihar. Pawar told me he still has a good rapport with Jayalalithaa, and admires her quick mind and her governing skill. He has also managed to thread the needle between the YSR Congress leader, Jagan Mohan Reddy, and the Congress party in the conflict over the creation of Telangana. In addition, the NCP general secretary, DP Tripathi, is close with the CPM general secretary, Prakash Karat, and has recently acted as a bridge between the parties.

“If there is a possibility to form a secular government, that possibility is of a third-front-led government supported by the Congress,” Pawar told me. “But there are many ifs and buts.” He said there could be “jhagras”—quarrels—between regional satraps over the issue of leadership, and that such a government may not last long. “But the one who has the maximum acceptability can be accepted” as prime minister, he said. “It won’t be numbers that matter.”