NEW DELHI: Five phases of the Lok Sabha Elections 2019 are over. And on May 23, the battle hard fought, will reveal the peoples mandate. But while the politicians wait, there is sufficient afoot to prepare for the verdict so that the BJP and its allies, or those opposing them can move in and form the government while the proverbial iron is hot.

Political talk thus, becomes relevant in the run up to counting day with suggestions and proposals and strategy emerging out of insights from the voting pattern across the country. The one name cropping up in opposition circles thus acquires relevance, with several regional and even Congress fingers pointing to Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar as the possible consensus candidate for Prime Minister if the opportunity so offers itself. And circumstances so ‘ordain’.

Pawar himself has not contested these Lok Sabha elections, and has emerged as the master strategist for the NCP and the Congress party in Maharashtra. With good relations with the Shiv Sena and its founder Bal Thackeray, Pawar is being credited with the Raj Thackeray led offensive across the state that has placed the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition on the defensive. Raj Thackeray is freely roaming Maharashtra, attacking the ruling coalition, while Pawar looks on benevolently from a distance.

Pawar has excellent relations now with Congress president Rahul Gandhi, the two meeting often for what insiders describe as “long meetings”. Pawar has cordial to very good relations with all regional parties as well, including the acerbic Bahujan Samaj party leader Mayawati. In 1999 he effected a coup, by winning her over to ensure the defeat of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the floor of the House by just one vote. Until Pawar tackled Mayawati, her support was taken for granted by the BJP in the vote of confidence. A Minister close to Vajpayee then confided that on the day of the vote “Mayawatiji would not meet our eyes, and then voted against the government.” All thanks to the strongman from Maharashtra.

In these elections he played a role ---albeit unsuccessful--- in trying to cobble together an alliance between the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress. Before the polls he was instrumental in getting all political parties together at Mamata Banerjee’s show of strength. He has good relations with all regional parties including Samajwadi, Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal(United), Janata Dal (Secular), the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh chieftains, the Tamil Nadu satraps ---all have not a word to say against Pawar.

This support was visible just three years ago when he brought all --Left, Right, Centrist---together in Vigyan Bhawan in Delhi in celebration of his 75th birthday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was present as was Congress leader Sonia Gandhi. All joined to pay Pawar glowing tributes.

In the scenario of a hung Parliament with the Opposition parties acquiring an edge in these elections, Pawar could well be he consensus candidate for Prime Minister if he ---as is now being expected---throws his hat into the ring. Or more likely another political party ---perhaps the Congress---does it for him. Sources said that he would find the acceptance from across the regional board that others would not, and if the Congress chief’s rapport with him extends to support, the die could well and truly be cast in his favour. As given the absence of a consensus the regional parties would not hesitate to support him.

Pawar also is a corporate favourite, with known and close links to all those who matter in big business today. He is a trusted politician, a leader who is well liked, with stories circulating of his close relations with top businessmen and their families. In general elections where the corporates play an increasingly interventionist role, this then becomes an asset as Pawar is certainly not a political leader that this infuential sector will object to in the top political post. In fact, if sources are to be believed, he has support where it matters already.

Pawar does not speak out of turn. He does not bad mouth one politician to another. In the decades that these reporters have known and observed him, Pawar is the one politician who does not air his preferences, his likes or dislikes publicly. He is reserved in his statements even if in action he has been drastic, such as leaving the Congress party and forming his own outfit under Indira Gandhi. He respects confidence, he can be trusted with a secret, and this keeps him popular amongst the politicians.

He is also seen as a good administrator having held top positions in Maharashtra and in the Cabinet at the centre. The bureaucracy has always liked him. His political dealings are such that he, sources said, can be trusted to keep a coalition together, having the ability to talk any satrap back into the fold.

Pawar himself has been saying that a government will be formed soon after the election results are declared, and that it will be stable and long term. Others in the opposition claim that meetings are already being held taking possible scenarios in mind, and a new non-BJP government will be in place “within 48 hours” after the results are known. As a senior opposition leader pointed out, “the story is not in the meetings that you see taking place,the story will emerge from all the meetings that you know nothing about.”

The two negatives are his health, and the fact that NCP tally in itself will hardly be an issue to boast about. But the counter to this from sources is that his health at the moment seems to be fine, and that by not contesting he has placed himself over and above the party. Sources said that he could even rejoin the Congress party, having been invited to do so a long while ago by Indira Gandhi herself when she came back to power in 1980. He had refused then as Sanjay Gandhi remained the sticking point. He is 78 years old, and if the peoples mandate goes against the BJP will certainly play a major role in government formation.

King or kingmaker? Circumstances will decide if 2019 will provide the ageing politician with his last hurrah.