Sharad Pawar, the Maratha strongman from Maharashtra, who has occupied a prominent place on the national and state political landscape for well over 50 years, dropped a bombshell on May 2, 2023, while launching his autobiography in Mumbai. He announced his resignation from the post of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president, saying he will, however, continue to be active in public life, without taking any responsibility within the party.

Shellshocked NCP members were left wailing, and pleading, for him to stay back. Some state leaders announced they too would resign from their party posts; some others threatened a dharna, while one NCP member wrote a letter in his blood , pleading for Pawar to take back his resignation. Speculation also started being made about who, after Pawar, even as partymen continued to plead.

Meanwhile, the 15-member committee that Pawar himself had constituted to look for a new president unanimously passed a resolution on May 5, 2023, rejecting his resignation and demanding he continue as the NCP president. Soon thereafter Pawar held a press conference to announce that for now he would continue as the NCP chief because he could not ignore the partymen’s sentiments.

Now, in hindsight, it appears that the entire resignation act was stage-managed by Pawar with some specific specs. This week-long exercise not only undisputably established Sharad Pawar as the NCP supremo, and all rumours of a simmering rebellion under the leadership of his nephew Ajit Pawar have fallen by the wayside, it has also catapulted him to the position of a unifying force for the non-BJP parties at the pan-India level.

It was a fact that under ED and CBI pressure, a sizable number of NCP MLAs had openly expressed their willingness to cross over to the BJP and Sharad Pawar was aware of this development. No amount of counselling could have prevented the MLAs from switching sides.

His dramatic resignation came as a masterstroke which consumed everything else. It not only reiterated who the boss was in the party, it also settled the leadership issue, at least for a few more years, till at least as long as he is around.

It is important to remember here that Pawar has been in active politics for over 60 years and has held his own area of influence even while he was with the Congress. Even after he left the Congress to form the NCP in 1999 over Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin issue, he has held his own, not only in Maharashtra, but at the national level too.

Despite his bitter parting of ways over Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin issue, he did not hesitate to join hands with the Congress in the UPA government too under Dr Manmohan Singh and remained in the union Cabinet till 2014. It was he who masterminded and spearheaded the dramatic Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP alliance in 2019 after the failed Fadnavis-Ajit Pawar experiment.

His shrewd political manoeuvring has left his opponents flummoxed at times. For example, while the Rahul Gandhi-led Adani issue was at its peak and the entire opposition had joined hands to demand a JPC, he took a different line and said even the Supreme Court monitored committee was good enough.

This deflated the entire opposition campaign and provided the much needed relief to the Modi government. On another occasion, when Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal was trumpeting the issue of Prime Minister’s degree, he dismissed it as a non-issue, thereby dealing a deathblow to this campaign as well.

At times, why he does what he does, has left even the most astute political pundits puzzled. Even as the entire Opposition was baying for Adani’s head, he appeared in an interview on Adani-owned NDTV and defended him, leaving many in the Congress red-faced.

But it sure has taken the heat off the Adani issue and once again provided some relief to the prime minister. It is no secret that Pawar himself enjoys a comfortable relationship with Adani. Incidentally, the Prime Minister has publicly acknowledged that he often seeks guidance from Pawar.

It is this uncanny balancing power which makes Pawar relevant in Indian politics today. He can single-handedly turn the political tide around in Maharashtra, as he proved during the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly election.

It is often mentioned that the picture of an 80-year-old Pawar delivering an election speech drenched in heavy rain had turned the tide in favour of NCP then. Pawar is the typical old school politician who does not overly depend on the social media to reach out to people, he can do that physically and often does it; he is not the over religious type; he does not espouse the cause of either ‘mandal’ or ‘kamandal’; he does not shun the corporate world either which gets him access to resources; he is not known for ever doing communal politics, and the best quality that he possess is a comfort level with various leaders across the political fulcrum.

Given his stature, experience and acumen, he can be trusted to bring disparate opposition parties together in the non-BJP camp, if he really gets at it. He has shown that he can achieve the impossible by forging the Maha Vikas Agadhi (MVA) alliance in Maharashtra with Shiv Sena and Congress, one of the most improbable combinations. The alliance is still going strong.

His political skill was once again to the fore when the Supreme Court pronounced its verdict on the Maharashtra government on Thursday, May 11. The SC said the entire drama which resulted into the fall of Udhav Thackeray led MVA government was unconstitutional but since Udhav had tendered his resignation voluntarily without taking the floor test, he cannot be reinstated.

It may be mentioned here that Sharad Pawar has said Udhav resigned without consulting the alliance partners and that he should not have done so. Had Udhav Thackeray consulted Pawar last year, maybe he could have been reinstated as Chief Minister today. This would have given the MVA alliance in Maharashtra a tremendous boost and enhanced the chances of Opposition parties getting united elsewhere too.

Sharad Pawar, it may be mentioned here, was the peacemaker between Congress and Udhav Shiv Sena when Rahul Gandhi was criticising Savarkar during his Bharat Jodo yatra and Shiv Sena (Udhav) was fulminating. It was Pawar who cautioned Rahul Gandhi against saying things which could damage the alliance and Rahul Gandhi heeded his advice then.

If there is one leader who has the experience, acumen and skill to bring disparate opposition parties together on an all-India basis, it is indisputably Sharad Pawar and that makes him relevant even today. Even at 82 years of age and after 62 years of active politics, Pawar remains more relevant today than ever before.

Nothing demonstrates this better than Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar visiting him and heartily supporting the idea of Pawar becoming the helmsman for Opposition Unity for the 2024 Lok Sabha election. For Pawar to reach this stage, he had to first assert his supremacy within his own party, which he did with his resignation and subsequent withdrawal.

One can remain confident that Pawar will call the shots in the Opposition unity dialogue from now on, till the 2024 Lok Sabha election.