Pawars And Thackerays: Bitter Rivals And Best Friends
Bal Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, and George Fernandes. (Photograph: Sharad Pawar/Twitter)

Pawars And Thackerays: Bitter Rivals And Best Friends

BloombergQuintOpinion

In 2006 when Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar was seeking to send his daughter Supriya Sule to the Rajya Sabha, he received a telephone call from Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray.

“I am very hurt, Sharadbabu,” Thackeray began without any greeting. “Supriya is contesting the Rajya Sabha polls and I get to hear about that from others and not from you?”

Anyone could be forgiven for wondering why that should have hurt Bal Thackeray. There were six vacancies to the Rajya Sabha from Maharashtra that year and there were seven candidates in the fray. One of them would be inevitably defeated and Pawar was making desperate efforts to garner votes of enough MLAs to make sure Supriya was not. To a common political observer, Thackeray should have been happy, not hurt, by Pawar’s considerable dilemma in balancing the votes between his daughter and the other Congress-NCP candidate. But now Thackeray asked, “Why have you not sought my help?”

When Pawar said there were other Shiv Sena-BJP candidates in the fray with more claim to the votes of their party legislators and he could not expect them to vote for the Congress-NCP candidate, Thackeray said, “Nothing doing! Your daughter is like my daughter. I have seen her from the time she was a baby. She grew up playing with my children. It is my responsibility too to make sure she reaches the Rajya Sabha.”

He then compelled the BJP to go along with his decision and withdraw one of their candidates so that Supriya could be elected to the Upper House unopposed.

Indeed, the Thackerays and the Pawars who have been fierce and bitter political enemies over the decades have been great friends in private, frequenting each other’s residences, lunching and dining with each other, helping the other out in their moments of personal and, at times, political crises.
Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray, in Mumbai on Sept. 15, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Sharad Pawar and Uddhav Thackeray, in Mumbai on Sept. 15, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Intertwined Journeys

Balasaheb Thackeray and Sharad Pawar met in the late 1950s when the former was still a cartoonist at the Free Press Journal and the latter a Youth Congress leader.

Not many know that Pawar sat in on discussions that led to the formation of the Shiv Sena in 1966 along with Thackeray and his friends.

In any case, the formation of the Shiv Sena was actively encouraged by senior Congress leaders of the time who wanted someone to take on the growing influence of the communist parties in Bombay and break the back of their trade unions in the textile heartland of the metropolis. So Pawar’s role as an observer was not out of place at those initial Shiv Sena meetings but their political paths diverged once the Sena took to violence and mayhem in 1968 over the Belgaum issue.

As Pawar grew in stature, even ending up as the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra ten years later in 1978, Bal Thackeray began to consciously position himself as the saviour and messiah of Hindus and appropriated to himself the title of Hindu Hriday Samrat. There could be no meeting of their political pathways after that. Thackeray would refer to Pawar as maidyancha pota – a sack of flour – to mock at his ample girth and label him a mullah for being secular while Pawar, desisting from personal abuse, would use his considerable power to stop Thackeray from setting the agenda. But despite the Pawars and Thackerays abusing or needling each other in public, their friendship remained intact amid all the political bitterness on public display.

So it should now not surprise anyone that after his father’s passing, Uddhav Thackeray should turn to Sharad Pawar to rescue him from the corner he has painted himself into and help him form the government in Maharashtra.
Uddhav Thackeray and family pay tribute to Bal Thackeray, in Mumbai, on Jan 23, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)
Uddhav Thackeray and family pay tribute to Bal Thackeray, in Mumbai, on Jan 23, 2019. (Photograph: PTI)

Fast Forward To 2019

For the first time during this crisis, the Pawars and the Thackerays were no longer hiding their affinity for each other and, whatever the outcome, it can be safely said that Uddhav would not have brought the situation to the brink in such a manner had he not had the active support and conscious encouragement by Sharad Pawar. For, both are fighting a common enemy out to gobble up their respective parties. The BJP had depleted the NCP of virtually all support bases before the poll process, with both BJP President Amit Shah and Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis mocking Pawar about his near-isolation and political downfall. On the other hand, Uddhav knows the BJP wishes to reduce the Shiv Sena to naught by 2024 and is determined not to allow the party the luxury of cannibalising it within an alliance. He is now at the point of no return so far as the BJP is concerned and has no choice but to ally with the Congress and the NCP to rescue his party from sinking into oblivion. Ditto the other two.

While this might seem like an alliance of strange bedfellows, those with a sense of history will only see it as things coming full circle between the Shiv Sena and the Congress-NCP.

Bal Thackeray And The Congress

Bal Thackeray had supported Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and later helped her win the 1980 elections to the Maharashtra assembly, at that time denying Sharad Pawar and his Congress(S) any support at the grassroots. In later years, after much water had flown under the bridge over his Hindutva and communal politics, he also helped the Congress elect two presidents - Pratibha Patil in 2007 and Pranab Mukherjee in 2012. The Congress had no qualms accepting that support despite the Shiv Sena’s saffron taint. Once again, Pawar had been the bridge between the two parties in seeking and securing that support and it stands to reason now that Congress president Sonia Gandhi has decided to go entirely by Pawar’s advice in the matter.

Sharad Pawar and Pranab Mukherjee, with the Thackeray family, in Mumbai, on July 13, 2012. (Photograph: PTI File Photo)
Sharad Pawar and Pranab Mukherjee, with the Thackeray family, in Mumbai, on July 13, 2012. (Photograph: PTI File Photo)

When Bal Thackeray was ailing in 2012 and it became apparent he had not many more days to go, Sharad Pawar paid him a discreet visit at Matoshree. Thackeray is said to have extracted a promise from his old friend at the time that whatever their politics, Pawar would look out for his son and political heir who was then already being written off as a no-show by political observers and critics who were sure Uddhav would sink the Shiv Sena after Bal Thackeray. That has not happened so far but the Shiv Sena could now truly face an existential crisis if it fails to pull off its coup against the BJP. So it is Pawar’s turn now to come to the rescue of his late friend’s son and the party he helped set up half a century ago. It is obvious he is standing by the promise he made to Thackeray on his death bed, though it might be a while before the wrinkles are ironed out of their renewed relationship.

Some friendships and promises are above political ideologies and party differences. Those who fail to understand this basic human impulse are bound to risk becoming footnotes of history.

Sujata Anandan is a political journalist and the author, most recently, of ‘Maharashtra Maximus: The State, Its People and Politics’.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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