The tussle for No 2 spot in UPA-II has put the spotlight on the political careers of ‘Mr Clean’ A K Antony and Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar, whose rise in corridors of power is a story of striking similiraties rather than contradictions.

Seasoned politicians, both rose to prominence in the political landscape of their states around the same time, left Congress after Emergency to join Devaraj Urs’ party, became Chief Ministers in their late thirties and were sent back from Centre to assume Chief Ministership.

Both were three-time Chief Ministers and held same porfolios — Defence and Civil Supplies — at different times.

There is no official word on the number two slot in the government and true to Congress style, the party has not made it clear whether Antony has stepped into Pranab Mukherjee’s shoes though an impression to this effect is gaining ground after a Cabinet meeting a week ago.

Two weeks earlier, it was speculated that Pawar has been assigned the coveted seat as he was seated next to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the Cabinet meeting but all changed the next week after Antony occupied the same seat. Pawar skipped the Cabinet meeting on Thursday last.

72-year-old Pawar, older to Antony by just 16 days, is said to be sulking over denial of the number two slot to him after the exit of Pranab Mukherjee from the government while Congress appears in no mood to give it away to the leader of its ally. Both sides claim it is a non-issue.

Antony himself said there is “no junior or senior” in the Union Cabinet while Pawar’s close aide Praful Patel said his party chief is “not petty” to raise such issues.

A close look at the rise of both Antony and Pawar in the political ladder since their entry into students politics in mid 1950s — through ‘Single Penny Strike’ by the Kerala leader and protest march for Goan independence by the Maratha leader — shows striking similarities.

After their stint in student politics, both Antony and Pawar rose to prominence in 1972 when the former successfully challenged then strongman K Karunakaran to become the Kerala party chief while the Maratha leader became a minister in state only to be promoted to Cabinet two years later.

Antony was initiated into politics by a lesser-known Congressman M A John, then a firebrand leader from whom he imbibed the ‘Mr Clean’ politics, while Pawar learned the tricks of the trade from Maharashtra strongman Y B Chavan.

Antony became the youngest to become a state party chief in 1972 at the age of 32. He became the Kerala Youth Congress president in 1967, the same year in which Pawar was elected to Assembly.

The Kerala leader was ahead of Pawar in becoming the Chief Minister by a year when he replaced Karunakaran in April 1977.

But a year later, Antony came out of Congress opposing party decision to field Indira Gandhi from Chikamangloor Lok Sabha seat where bye-elections were being held. Antony also raised his voice against Emergency and Indira Gandhi at the Guwahati AICC session.

He joined Devaraj Urs, who had successfully weaned away many promising Congressmen including Y B Chavan, Pawar, Ambika Soni, Vayalar Ravi, P R Dasmunshi, Ommen Chandy and P C Chacko.

After the split, Pawar rose to become Maharashtra Chief Minister in July 1978 after pulling down a Congress dispensation only to be dismissed by Gandhi in February 1980.

Though in the same party, Antony had problems and he formed Congress (A) which later returned to Gandhi’s Congress in 1984. Pawar waited till 1986 to return to the party during Rajiv Gandhi’s time.

He again became the Chief Minister in 1988 and continued till June 1991 and decided to shift himself to the Centre following Rajiv’s assassination. He was in the race for Prime Ministership but P V Narasimha Rao pipped him and N D Tiwari for the post.

A force to reckon within the party, Pawar was made Defence Minister while Antony became the Civil Supplies Minister.

Interestingly, there was a role reversal post 2004 as Antony became Defence Minister while his previous portfolio was held by Pawar in the new dispensation. Antony also posted a record by becoming the longest serving Defence Minister of the country, holding the post for six years.

In early 1993, Rao send Pawar back to Maharashtra as Chief Minister while Antony resigned from the Union Cabinet following allegations of irregularties in sugar import and in 1995, went back to Kerala as Chief Minister following intense factional politics.

Both the leaders could not win the subsequent Assembly elections and became Opposition Leaders but were playing prominent roles in national politics as Congress was going through a rough patch following election defeat in 1996 under Rao’s leadership.

As intense lobbying started against Rao and leaders positioned themselves for the AICC presidentship, Pawar contested against Sitaram Kesari for the post but was defeated. Antony’s name was also discussed but he did not make the cut.

However, the turning point for Pawar, who rose to be the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha by then, came in 1999 when he along with P A Sangma and Tariq Anwar objected to declaring Sonia Gandhi as Prime Ministerial candidate due to her foreign origin.

“It is not possible that a country of 980 million, with a wealth of education, competence and ability, can have anyone other than an Indian, born of Indian soil, to head its government,” Pawar, Sangma and Anwar said in their letter.

The trio were expelled though Antony and Arjun Singh were said to have advised a cautious approach by first expelling Anwar from the party as a signal to those supporting them. Pawar then formed Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and in 2004 made a volte-face and joined the Congress-led UPA.

Antony, on the other hand, had a steady rise in the party and earned stature winning the confidence of the High Command. He is a member of the all important Congress Working Committee since 1992 and Central Disciplinary Committee since 1993.

Post Script
1. @fakingnews: Who came first – Chicken or Egg? Don’t know. But Sharad Pawar came second.
2. NCP officially says No 2 position is not the issue.

July 21, 2012


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