"After reading (Former Maharashtra [ Images ] Chief Minister) Vilasrao Deshmukh [ Images ] and (Minister of State in the PMO) Prithviraj Chavan's [ Images ] comments wanting to go alone in the Maharashtra assembly elections, I am worried and spending sleepless nights," said veteran politician Sharad Pawar [ Images ] in a sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek answer to the two senior Congressmen, ridiculing the Congress attempt at one upmanship.
The Nationalist Congress Party chief was quick to point out that he is taking the repeated and continued utterances of the two Congressmen seriously "since Deshmukh is now a Union minister and a member of the Congress Working Committee and Prithviraj is in the PMO. When someone from the PMO speaks like this I have to take it seriously".
Pawar was grinning and enjoying the banter as he sat relaxed with a small group of journalists. He was in a chatty mood but behind the banter was an underlying seriousness as the results of the Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra had clearly left him with very little bargaining power and his famed and fabled manoeuvrability had been reduced to nought.
The elections saw the hype of Pawar emerging as a compromise prime ministerial candidate, but the reduced strength of 8 MPs in Maharashtra as opposed to the Congress party's 18 from the state certainly put a dampener on the post-poll celebrations.
Assembly elections in Maharashtra are due in October. Sections of the Congress, including Deshmukh and Chavan, have been making repeated demands asking the leadership to break off with the NCP and go it alone along the lines of Uttar Pradesh [ Images ] and Bihar. While Pawar was reacting to this, there is a very serious concern that an upbeat Congress may decide to listen to its workers and rank and file and that could spell trouble.
Pawar said that in the last 10 years, the Congress and the NCP had been together in both the state and the Centre, and said that status quo (that is the continuance of the alliance) would be a good thing. As far as the number of seats each party would contest, would depend on whether the Congress insists on the 2009 results or the 2004 assembly results where the NCP had more seats.
Out of a total of 288 seats in the Maharashtra assembly, the NCP had contested 122 and won 71 while the Congress contested 166 and won 68. But in the 2009 Lok Sabha, the Congress won 18 MPs while the NCP won only 8. But Pawar's contention is that in terms of percentage of votes, the NCP gained while the Congress lost in this round of election.
While the NCP increased its percentage from 18 to 19.14 the Congress percentage declined from 22 to 19.8 and while the Congress added 2 lakh voters to its kitty, the NCP added 10 lakh votes. The combined strength of the BJP-Shiv Sena vote was 36 per cent of votes.
Pawar's logic is clear. Can the Congress afford to go alone when the figures show that a divided Congress-NCP vote bank would sweep the BJP-SS alliance back to power, though they have been out in the cold for 10 years in the state politics?
While Pawar is playing it cool for the time being, getting his ammunition ready for the hard bargaining which lies ahead, ahead of the assembly polls but he is unhappy that the Congress has not taken disciplinary action against the 3 Congress MLAs who contested from Gondia, Sangli and Ahmednagar with the NCP losing the Ahmednagar seat because of seat distribution.
While sections of the NCP believe that the Congress has made up its mind to go alone, Pawar is not overplaying his hand. He is waiting for the International Cricket Council [ Images ] Presidentship, which will come his way on June 31, 2010, by his own reckoning. He has already left the Maharashtra state unit free to take its own decision and run its own affairs and in the Centre, he is preparing the ground for finally handing over the reigns of power to daughter Supriya Sule, who has just won from their backyard of Baramati.
The fond father that he is, Sharad Pawar spent the entire day on Monday waiting in Parliament House to witness his daughter take oath as a Lok Sabha MP. She was earlier in the Rajya Sabha. But for a grass root leader like Pawar, the significance of the Lok Sabha can neither be diminished nor undermined and that is why his parting thought is that if the Congress is using its leaders to pressurise him into submission, then the "situation is even more worrying than I thought and I really will have to find a solution to my sleepless nights".
With that he gives a big grin, chuckles loudly, picks up his papers and walks away.