Political Veterans : Battle For Survival & Succession

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections are not just a contest for seats but a decisive battle for the political survival and legacies of several veteran leaders. This election could mark the end of an era or the continuation of their influence in Indian politics
By Reeta Singh
  • In a succession battle, Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar outmaneuvered him, defeating the mentor in political strategy
  • Mayawati is credited with the current state of the BSP. Every decision, big or small, is solely hers. Identifying a second-in-command is challenging
  • For the first time in 23 years, no member of KCR’s family is contesting in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections
  • Ironically, the Lok Sabha polls will be crucial for Uddhav Thackeray to prove which faction truly carries forward Balasaheb’s legacy

2024 Lok Sabha elections will determine the political fate and direction of those leaders who need to prove themselves in these elections. The results of the Lok Sabha elections will decide whether the political careers of veteran leaders like Sharad Pawar, Mayawati, Naveen Patnaik, H.D. Deve Gowda, Uddhav Thackeray, O Panneerselvam, Nitish Kumar, and K Chandrashekar Rao will continue or they will retire from politics, whether their existence in active politics will remain intact or they will be on the political decline.

SHARAD PAWAR – THE MARATHA STALWART

Sharad Pawar, the 83-year-old political veteran,  has been a stalwart in Maharashtra’s political landscape since his entry into politics on May 1, 1960. His influence spans over six decades, with a notable highlight of the formation of ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ alliance. This alliance proved his ability to unite disparate political entities like Shiv Sena and Congress for a common cause. 

Pawar’s political odyssey began with student activism and participation in the “Goa Liberation Movement,” eventually leading to his joining the Congress party. By 27, he was elected as a legislator on a Congress ticket in 1966, marking the start of an illustrious career. During a tumultuous period within Congress marked by a rift between Indira Gandhi and the Syndicate, Pawar aligned with Congress (Requisitionists), which was created in 1969 by Indira Gandhi, under the guidance of his mentor Yashwantrao Chavan.  Later in 1977, the Congress party split, with Pawar’s mentor, Yashwantrao Chavan joining one faction, Congress (U), and Indira Gandhi leading her own faction, Congress (I). Pawar chose to join Congress (U). In July 1978, his ambition soon led him to rebel against Congress ( U), to form a coalition government with the Janata Party. In the process, at the age of 38, he became the youngest Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

STRATEGIC MOVES

Pawar’s rise to the Chief Minister’s position is a tale of political tactics. In the assembly elections of 1978, the Congress factions split, and despite the Janata Party’s plurality, they lacked a majority. Then Congress factions united, and Vasantdada Patil, known as the first modern Maratha strongman and first mass leader in Maharashtrian politics, initially took office as Chief Minister. However, internal strife led to Pawar’s departure with 40 legislators, toppling the government in less than five months. It began to be said about Pawar that he had stabbed Vasantdada in the back. Then Pawar, with his Socialist Congress, planned to form a government and by the end of July 1978, became the youngest Chief Minister with the formation of the ‘Progressive Democratic Party’ government. 

Following the split in the Janata Party at the national level, Indira Gandhi recommended the dismissal of the Maharashtra government, leading to the imposition of President’s rule. Consequently, Pawar found himself out of power for an extended period. After the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi, Pawar contested the Lok Sabha elections from Baramati in 1984 and emerged victorious amid the Rajiv wave. Invited by Rajiv Gandhi to counter Shiv Sena’s rise, Pawar rejoined Congress. It is also said that Sharad Pawar understood very well that a government could not be formed in Maharashtra without Congress and Pawar decided to return to Congress and became the Chief Minister for the second time in 1988.

Political veteran Sharad Pawar’s influence spans over six decades, with a notable highlight being the formation of the ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ alliance. This alliance proved his ability to unite disparate political entities like Shiv Sena and Congress for a common cause

After the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Pawar vied for the Prime Ministerial role when the question of leadership had become a big issue in the Congress, but had to be content with the post of Defense Minister. In 1993, Pawar became the Chief Minister of Maharashtra for the third time. In 1999, Pawar broke away from the Congress and formed Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), raising the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. Pawar’s relations with Sonia Gandhi remained strained. 

In 1999, elections were held in Maharashtra where the Congress and NCP contested separately. After the elections, an alliance was formed to establish the government in Maharashtra. Meanwhile, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government was formed at the Centre for the third time and lasted for five years. In 2004, under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, the Congress emerged as the largest party in the Lok Sabha elections. Following Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to become the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh assumed the position. It is believed that Sharad Pawar might have become Prime Minister had he been in the Congress at that time. Subsequently, as a member of the coalition party, Pawar served as the Agriculture Minister at the Center for ten years.

A LEGACY IN QUESTION

In 2014, when the Modi government came to power with a thumping majority, the BJP government was formed under chief ministership of Devendra Fadnavis for a full term. However, in 2019 the alliance that Pawar formed in the state was noteworthy. Leaders from Pawar’s party were defecting to the BJP. When the results of the 2019 Maharashtra Assembly elections were announced, the BJP lost seats, and the Shiv Sena was demanding the Chief Minister’s post. During this crisis, Pawar managed to unite the arch-rivals, Shiv Sena and Congress, to form Uddhav Thackeray’s government, thereby once again demonstrating his political acumen. Yet, history has a way of repeating itself. In 2019, Pawar’s nephew, Ajit Pawar, made an unsuccessful attempt to create a split in the party. Subsequently, in 2022, Eknath Shinde mirrored this historical event by rebelling against the Shiv Sena and Uddhav Thackeray, ultimately ascending to the Chief Minister’s position. Following Ajit Pawar’s rebellion, Sharad Pawar was left without a party or an election symbol.

Now, Sharad Pawar must start anew from scratch. It is often said that Pawar never loses; he only contests elections when his victory is assured, and refrains from running when it is not. This applies to both politics and cricket. In politics, Pawar has never lost an election. And in the politics of cricket, he defeated Ajit Wadekar in the Mumbai Cricket Association elections in 2001, taking control of cricket management. However, in the 2004 BCCI elections, Jagmohan Dalmiya defeated Pawar. To convert that defeat into victory, Pawar defeated Dalmiya the next year and became the President of BCCI and till 2010 he remained the President of International Cricket Council (ICC).

Sharad Pawar no longer possesses the name of the political party he founded 24 years ago, nor its election symbol, ‘Ghari’ (clock). In a battle for succession, his nephew Ajit Pawar outmanoeuvred him. Pawar, who had mentored him in the art of politics, was bested by his nephew. Now Sharad Pawar’s party is ‘Nationalist Congress Party-Sharad Chandra Pawar,’ and its election symbol is ‘Tutari,’ meaning trumpet. The veteran leader says there is no need to worry too much about losing the party and symbol. I have contested 14 elections so far. We will start anew, and everyone knows who NCP belonged to. Anyway, Sharad Pawar says that he will show his full strength in the legislative assembly elections. Now it remains to be seen how much life Pawar can breathe into the new party with new enthusiasm at this stage of his age.

POLITICAL JOURNEY OF MAYAWATI

This year’s Lok Sabha elections will determine the fate of Mayawati’s politics, which is rapidly losing ground among her loyal voters. The BSP’s politics have thrived primarily in Uttar Pradesh, but the party has also made its mark in Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Over the last decade, the influence of Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has diminished. Although Mayawati formed governments in Uttar Pradesh with BJP support in 1995, 1997, and 2002, the BJP each time undermined her government, despite her backing on various issues. This has led to perceptions of Mayawati as an adjunct to the BJP’s ‘B’ team. 

In 2007, Mayawati was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh for the fourth time and served a full five-year term. Known as the foremost leader of the Dalits in the country, Mayawati had aspired to become an IAS officer. However, her life took a turn that led her into politics. This change occurred after the Emergency ended in 1977, during a public meeting addressed by Raj Narain, who repeatedly used the term ‘Harijan’ from the stage. At that time, Mayawati took to the stage and vehemently criticised Raj Narain for his use of the word ‘Harijan.’ The crowd was impressed by her speech and began to congratulate her. Upon hearing this, Dalit leader Kanshi Ram visited Mayawati’s home and encouraged her to join politics. When Mayawati expressed her dream of becoming an IAS officer, Kanshi Ram persuaded her, saying, ‘Join us, and you will reach heights where hundreds of IAS officers will follow your orders.’ Mayawati’s father disapproved of this path, giving her an ultimatum to either leave the house or abandon politics. 

Under Mayawati’s influence BSP won 206 out of 403 seats on its own, comfortably surpassing the majority threshold and securing a vote share of over 30 percent. However, from 2012 onwards, Mayawati’s influence began to wane

Mayawati chose politics. Kanshi Ram founded the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in 1984, and under Mayawati’s influence, the party achieved its best performance in the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The BSP won 206 out of 403 seats on its own, comfortably surpassing the majority threshold and securing a vote share of over 30 percent. However, from 2012 onwards, Mayawati’s influence began to wane. 

In the 2012 elections, she secured only 80 seats in the UP Assembly, with the vote share dropping to 25.91 percent. By the 2017 Assembly elections, the BSP was reduced to a mere 19 seats, and the vote share fell further to 22.33 percent. By 2022, the BSP had dwindled to just one seat in the entire state, with a vote share of 12.88 percent. Additionally, the deposits of 287 BSP candidates were forfeited.

GRADUAL DECLINE

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP formed an alliance with Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP), winning 10 seats compared to zero in 2014. Mayawati, who is 68 years old, is considered responsible for the current state of the BSP. In the party, every decision, whether small or large, is made by Mayawati. It is difficult to identify a second-in-command within the party, which is why no leader seems to endure in the BSP. The gradual disappearance of the BSP from the political landscape can be attributed to Mayawati, who has shifted away from the politics of street struggle. Now, if she needs to comment on any serious issue, she merely makes her presence known on social media. During the 2022 assembly elections, Mayawati was largely inactive, addressing only three to four rallies in the entire state. The label of Mayawati as the ‘B’ team of the BJP stems from slogans that appeared to favour the BJP. In 2022, Mayawati ended the alliance with the SP, and on April 5, 2023, she made three tweets distancing herself from those slogans, stating that ‘these slogans were created by the SP to defame the BSP’.

After the Ayodhya structure was demolished on December 6, 1992, Kanshi Ram and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s parties formed an alliance in Uttar Pradesh. A famous slogan at the time was ‘Mile Mulayam-Kanshi Ram, Hawa Mein Ud Gaye Jai Shri Ram.’ Mayawati responded to this with three tweets, explaining that SP often plays politics with uncontrolled issues. She said the slogans about Ayodhya and the Ram Temple that were spread back then were SP’s tricks to make the BSP look bad. She emphasised that Dalits, other backward classes, and the Muslim community should be careful of SP’s tactics. Now, people are questioning whether Mayawati’s recent comments are correct or if Kanshi Ram was right not to object to the slogans at the time. Mayawati had previously used the slogan ‘Brahmin Shankh Bajayega, Haathi Dilli Jayega’ but the BSP was defeated. So, the BSP must now work hard to improve its performance. Should the BSP’s performance not show significant improvement in 2024, it could signal the end of Mayawati’s political career. Meanwhile, Mayawati is preparing her nephew, Akash Anand, for a role to lead the party.

TURNING POINT FOR REGIONAL POWERHOUSES

This year’s Lok Sabha elections are significant as they will shape the future of many regional parties, like Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Naveen Patnaik, who has been the Chief Minister of Odisha for 24 years and is the state’s most uncontested leader, faces the dual challenges of the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. A victory in these elections would allow the 78-year-old Naveen Patnaik to choose his successor.

Naveen Patnaik is currently the second-longest-serving Chief Minister in the country. If his party wins the upcoming Assembly elections, he will surpass the former Sikkim Chief Minister Pawan Kumar Chamling to become number one. However, even if Naveen Patnaik succeeds in setting this record, there is, for the first time, speculation about who his successor will be. 

Nitish Kumar has agreed to all the conditions set by the BJP high command, with a single stipulation: regardless of the Lok Sabha election results, he seeks a dignified departure from the Chief Minister’s office and an appointment to a Raj Bhavan. This would mark his farewell from active politics

Trust and support for Naveen Patnaik within the BJD seem to be waning. BJD leaders believe that health issues and advancing age may prevent him from leading the party in 2029. Moreover, the rumoured alliance with the BJP, which ultimately did not materialise, has significantly damaged the BJD’s credibility. Questions have arisen about Naveen Patnaik’s need for an alliance with the BJP. 

IAS-turned-politician V K Pandian, Naveen’s confidant and the party’s second-in-command, was aware that Naveen’s age and health might lead to internal rebellion within the BJD. In such a case, the BJP’s support would be crucial to maintain power. However, Naveen became aware of Pandian’s political manoeuvres and ultimately rejected the alliance. 

Although Pandian was prominently featured on every poster and banner, Biju Patnaik has now taken his place. Furthermore, party workers and leaders opposed the idea of Pandian as Naveen’s successor. Meanwhile, the BJP has made the dignity of Odia language and culture an issue, criticising Naveen’s proficiency in his mother tongue. Prominent figures like Bhartruhari Mahtab have recently left Naveen’s party, with others also gravitating towards the BJP. In this context, Naveen faces the challenge of reaffirming his leadership in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Should he secure a victory in the Assembly elections, he will also have the opportunity to choose his successor.

FIGHT FOR LEGACY

Like Sharad Pawar, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray also faces the challenge of preserving his legacy in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections in Maharashtra. He is experiencing the consequences of severing ties with the BJP to join forces with the Congress and Sharad Pawar, a move that left him without the party’s name or election symbol. Meanwhile, Eknath Shinde, once a loyal Shiv Sainik and confidant of Uddhav, has split from the Shiv Sena to become the Chief Minister, claiming that he carries the true legacy of Balasaheb Thackeray. Ironically,  Lok Sabha polls will be crucial for Uddhav Thackeray to demonstrate which faction represents the genuine Shiv Sena and to determine who truly holds Balasaheb Thackeray’s legacy.

For the past two decades, K Chandrashekhar Rao has been recognized as the leader of Telangana. After establishing the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) party and securing victories in two assembly elections, KCR’s ambitions grew, leading him to form the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) party. However, the 2023 assembly elections thwarted the aspirations of the 71-year-old KCR, resulting in his defeat by the Congress. 

Consequently, for the first time in 23 years, no member of KCR’s family is contesting in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, despite their participation in every Lok Sabha and Assembly election since 2004. KCR’s daughter K Kavitha lost the Nizamabad election in 2019 and is currently incarcerated due to the Delhi liquor scam. KCR’s son – K T Rama Rao and nephew – T Harish Rao, who are MLAs, have chosen not to participate in the Lok Sabha elections. KCR’s influence over his party leaders is diminishing, with the BJP strategically undermining his leadership. KCR faces a formidable challenge from the Congress. There is speculation that if KCR’s party does not perform well in the Lok Sabha elections, it could lead to the party’s decline post-election.

POLITICAL CROSSROADS

Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has set a record for being the CM of Bihar for a long time and has not hesitated to change allies to keep the CM’s chair intact, has been predicted by his admirer Prashant Kishor that ‘after the elections, his party Janata Dal United (JDU) will still remain, there is doubt in it. Nitish Kumar’s image of a ‘Paltu Ram’ over the image created by the name of ‘Sushasan Babu’ is becoming heavy, who is now not being taken seriously as a leader. Anyway, the effect of age is also showing on 73-year-old Nitish Kumar; when and what he might say is uncertain. 

However, Nitish Kumar, while thoroughly assessing the needs of others, fits into every niche well. Nitish Kumar knows well that the situation in Bihar is similar to that of Maharashtra; he can be removed from the Chief Minister’s post at any time. So if sources are to be believed, Nitish Kumar has agreed to all the conditions set by the BJP high command, with a single stipulation: regardless of the Lok Sabha election results, he seeks a dignified departure from the Chief Minister’s office and an appointment to a Raj Bhavan. This would mark his farewell from active politics.

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections are a matter of life and death for many politicians. The results coming on June 4, 2024, will determine whether they will remain active in politics or retire

O Panneerselvam, aged 69 and a prominent leader of the AIADMK, was a trusted ally of the late J Jayalalithaa. He stepped into the role of Tamil Nadu’s Chief Minister on three occasions. Initially, he was Jayalalithaa’s substitute when legal hurdles prevented her from holding office. Later, he became her official successor within the party. However, after her demise, his third term as Chief Minister was cut short due to significant internal dissent, leading to his resignation and expulsion from AIADMK. Now, relying on the BJP’s support, Panneerselvam is contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Ramanathapuram, striving to stay politically relevant. Having been Chief Minister thrice and having presented the state budget eleven times, he now faces a pivotal election that will determine his political fate and legacy.

The 2024 Lok Sabha elections are a matter of life and death for many politicians. The results coming on June 4, 2024, will determine whether they will remain active in politics or retire. Moreover, these politicians are fighting to preserve their legacy.

Reeta Singh

Reeta Singh is a senior journalist with over 30 years’ of experience in print and electronic media. She is also a social activist, working on gender issues

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