On Friday, Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar could not fly to Bhubaneshwar, Orissa, to attend a rally organised by the anti-Congress platform of the Left parties and the Biju Janata Dal due to "technical snag" in his aircraft.
Pawar's presence would have given a severe psychological jolt to the Congress with whom his party has an alliance in Maharashtra for the coming election. He and his colleague Praful Patel are part of the Union Cabinet and his party is an important part of the ruling United Progressive Alliance .
The excuse given by Pawar cannot be easily believed because he could have organised a private aircraft at short notice given that his confidante Praful Patel is civil aviation minister.
Then, why did Pawar retreat?
It seems that like the old Chinese warriors, Pawar is sidestepping and not retreating.
He is giving the cold-shoulder to the Left parties and the Third Front but more importantly, he is playing cold-blooded politics with the Congress
Some experts have incorrectly observed that the softly-worded warning by Home Minister P Chidambaram, who has an ego-tussle with Pawar over security to the Indian Premier League, has deterred the Maratha politician from flying to Orissa.
As rediff.com reported on Thursday, Janardan Dwivedi, Congress media campaign chief, said, "The Congress party has already clarified its position earlier that there would be no alliances with any party at the national level but only at the state level. As far as Pawar is concerned and whatever he is doing in Orissa, it is for him to think whether it is correct ethically and morally".
Dwivedi almost warned Pawar when he said, "The Congress values its relationship with its alliance partners but that does not mean that we will compromise with our ideology and policies. He will be responsible for the consequences of his actions."
Now, what could be the possible 'consequences' and what could be the possible 'action' Dwivedi is talking about?
Those who claim that Pawar bowed down to Chidambarams or Dwivedis do not know the stuff that Pawar is made of.
Hopefully, the Congress is aware that the consequences of a tussle with Pawar means in coming assembly elections in Maharashtra, the NCP and Congress alliance will come under pressure and could also break.
It is no secret that Pawar has ambitions to become prime minister. In this ugly season of political 'free for all', Pawar is trying to keep the windows open for post-poll manoeuvring. Since last few months, he was in touch with Left leaders A B Bardhan and Prakash Karat and he is in position to lobby with the BJP and it's allies in the NDA if the need arises.
But, since his party is likely to win around 12 Lok Sabha seats or so, Pawar is treading carefully on his home turf of Maharashtra. Even today, Pawar's main focus is assembly elections and he can not blur his focus.
He took the decision to not attend the rally in Orissa on Thursday. Pawar was in Vidrabha region. In Khamgaon constituency of Buldhana he praised Congress President Sonia Gandhi to the skies.
He said five years back Sonia Gandhi formed an alliance of secular parties and because of her this country is safe. He praised Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also.
"Manmohan Singh is a very nice person. He has truly worked for the development of the country. I was lucky that I was a part of his cabinet," said Pawar.
Right now, till the day of election apparently he is fighting against BJP and Shiv Sena so he is talking against communalism. The demand of the times is such that Pawar said in a unique speech delivered through a cell phone in Orissa that, "I am not with the Third Front. There is a difference between Third Front and BJD. We want to continue with the UPA."
These days, he is speaking against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to win the trust of the Muslims in Vidarbha. If he would have gone to Bhubaneshwar, the Congress cadre would have surely boycotted NCP candidates. In Maharashtra, where the NCP is fighting 22 seats, his candidates will be in trouble if Congress workers sabotage the NCP's campaign.
Congress is fighting in 26 seats and the alliance is quite vulnerable, both ways.
Whatever Pawar is talking now is only for consumption of voters for the Lok Sabha elections but whatever he will be doing after the election will be to nurture his vested interests in the assembly election which are due this winter.
Dwivedi's harsh remarks are not appropriate at all for Congress in view of Pawar's larger game-plan.
When Pawar turned 60, entire Maharashtra celebrated his birthday. At that time, his daughter Supriya Sule had said in an interview that after so many years she has been unable to understand her father! How true! His friends also say that Pawar is deep and mysterious. He is a difficult politician to understand. His native Baramati was dry area where in 1970s he developed the scheme of water management and that did wonders for people. Agriculture development in and around Baramati was a pioneering effort in the country.
Baramati's development is seen to be believed. Pawar's private businesses, his alleged links with underworld gangs, his tenure as chief minister during the communal tension in Mumbai and serious corruption charges against him and his family has not overshadowed his capacity to govern. That is the clout of being Pawar.
Pawar understands Maharashtra politics like nobody does. He is the son of soil with an impressive track record. Pawar was doing politics of development when Modi was a college student. His power stems from micro-managing Maharashtra politics. He has taken care of vested interests of the sugar co-operatives lobby and through them he has taken care of local politics right up to the village level.
He is the man, the Late Pramod Mahajan used to say, who holds power even when he is out of power.
Long before people of New Delhi understood the power of regional politics, Pawar recognised it. He won the Lok Sabha election from Baramati in 1984 for the first time. In March 1985, he also won state assembly elections from Baramati. Pawar being Pawar preferred to continue in state politics.
He resigned from the Lok Sabha and became the leader of the opposition in the state assembly.
For the NCP it is okay if Pawar did not fly to have a photo-op with Karat. Of course, that's a net loss to Karat but the Congress will not be able to rejoice for long.
Gajanan Janbhor, senior editor of Lokmat, says, "Nobody can be sure when Pawar can take a U-turn. If Mulayam Singh Yadav can shake hands with Kalyan Singh why can't Pawar have an alliance with the Shiv Sena in the coming election?"
This is the crux of the matter.
Move around Maharashtra and in all places where Congress candidates are facing Shiv Sena going is getting tough for the Congress. There is no evidence of a secret understanding between the Shiv Sena and NCP but already observers are calculating the effects of NCP's Maratha vote bank's and Shiv Sena's OBC's vote bank. (In the 2004 assembly elections, the Shiv Sena got 19.9 percent of the votes and NCP got 18.75 percent)
How will the Brahmin and Dalit vote go in the assembly election and will it radically transform the state politics forever?
For more than a decade, the Congress is unable to make in roads in UP, Bihar and Tamil Nadu due to two regional alliances who dominate the political space. If after the Lok Sabha election, Pawar finds the Congress weak or playing hard ball with him then a Shiv Sena-NCP alliance can not be ruled out.
It will be radical but it is not impossible.
If UPA loses power or the Third Front does not work out then Pawar will play his big game for sure.
A Mumbai-based senior journalist points out that in seats like Satara, Nagpur and Kolhapur one can already see that undercurrent. In a very Mumbai dialect he told me, "Pawar-Sena ka setting lagta hai."