Ever since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, India’s political landscape has been through several phases. Beginning with the Narasimha Rao era, it witnessed the coalition era, the Vajpayee era, the UPA era, and then the advent of the Modi-Shah duo. Throughout the twists and turns and fluctuating fortunes, if there has been one constant, it has been Sharad Pawar’s status. For almost three decades now, he has been the mainstream media’s favorite Prime Minister in waiting.

With every approaching election, one invariably comes across reports on both television and print media about Pawar’s Prime Ministerial ambitions being as fervent as ever. 

This is followed up with imaginary scenarios of terribly fractured mandates wherein any player could throw their hats in the ring for the top job. We are told by experts that Pawar would have an edge over the others because he would be agreeable to all, everyone respects him for his age and experience, and that he is the ‘Chanakya’ of the lot. Till date however, the regional political outfit he heads has never crossed the 15-seat mark.

The only time the top job was within striking distance for Pawar was in 1991 when he was with the Congress Party back then. Rajiv Gandhi had been assassinated during the elections and the Congress had won 244 seats. However, Pawar was outsmarted by PV Narasimha Rao. 

After serving briefly as Rao’s Defense Minister, he was sent back to Maharashtra as the state’s chief minister. The party contested the assembly elections of 1995 under his leadership and was routed. In 1997, he contested the election for the presidency of the Congress Party and lost to Sitaram Kesri. 

Two years later, he formed his own party on the pretext that he would never work under the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi. The party he founded ended up allying with the Sonia-led Congress, and remained a junior partner in both the state and the center. This is the man that Noida’s television studios have referred to as the modern day Chanakya.

With his decision of lending support to the new Sena-Congress alliance in Maharashtra, the mainstream media has once again bestowed the title of Chanakya on Sharad Pawar. The same media which wasn’t sure if Sharad Pawar was playing a double game when his nephew Ajit briefly joined the BJP camp less than a week back, is now convinced that this has been a battle of wits between Amit Shah and Sharad Pawar all along, and that the latter has emerged victorious. The Modi-Shah duo has been outsmarted finally, they tell us. Apparently, the duo has met its match and there is a new Chanakya in town.

Pawar choosing to throw his weight behind the new Sena-Congress alliance might have pleased many in the mainstream media, since it keeps the BJP out of power for now. However, what makes this move so Chanakyan is completely lost on those who do not belong to the mainstream media. After the results of the assembly elections were announced and Shiv Sena walked out on the BJP, it all boiled down to whether the state would have a BJP chief minister or a Shiv Sena chief minister. 

Pawar and his party were nowhere in the fray, and were offered the post of deputy chief minister by both sides. Pawar chose one side over the other and for this, the mainstream media has placed his political acumen on a pedestal. 

In fact, purely from the perspective of political self-interest, it can be argued that Pawar has made the wrong choice, for three reasons. The first is that despite being largely rejected by the people of Maharashtra, he could have enjoyed power for five years without disrespecting the state’s mandate had he chosen the BJP. The second is that he put his weight behind an alliance that is unlikely to last the entire term. Ideological contradictions, pre-existing dissent and infighting in all three camps, and an angry BJP that has been deprived of its mandate, will most likely cause the government’s premature downfall. The third is that central agencies seem to have a lot of grounds to come after Pawar, his family and his colleagues. Since he has no leverage over the BJP, the agencies are no longer obligated to display any restraint. With both the BJP and the Sena-Congress alliance having offered Pawar the post of deputy chief minister, it is surprising that Pawar has made a choice where he has so much to lose. All he has gained is the validation of mainstream media journalists, which includes of course, the much coveted Chanakya title.

In their blind hatred for the BJP, what is more ironic than Sharad Pawar’s new title though is the mainstream media’s suggestion that he has outsmarted the Modi-Shah duo, and now rightfully deserves a title that had initially been reserved for them. 

Just a few months ago, the Modi-Shah duo returned to power at the center for a second consecutive term, with a whopping 303 seats. Comparing them with anyone in India’s contemporary political landscape, let alone an ageing party boss with influence that doesn’t extend beyond Western Maharashtra, is a display of cognitive dissonance. One might as well then proclaim that the duo has lost their edge each time the BJP loses a municipal poll or a student body poll. To be fair to the mainstream media, at least it has been consistent in this respect, cognitive dissonance or otherwise.

Interestingly in 2004, when the Congress-led UPA had just come to power in the center, it was at the mercy of each of their allies including the NCP. In the Maharashtra assembly elections that were held a few months later, the NCP won two more seats than the Congress. Despite the leverage that Pawar possessed at the time, he gave away the chief minister’s position to the Congress. From playing second fiddle at the center, he was reduced to playing second fiddle in the state as well. This was after he had settled for the agriculture ministry at the center, a ministry that was unworthy of his supposed stature. Ever since the Prime Minister’s post was within his grasp in 1991, his political career has been a series of bad decisions which have undermined him increasingly. But when you keep the BJP out of power in a state like Maharashtra, even if it’s for a few months, the enlightened minds of the mainstream media suddenly rediscover your inner Chanakya.

About Ajit Datta

Columnist, co-founder of Republic PLF, consulting editor at tfipost, admin at TFI.