With uncertainty surrounding the leadership question in the Congress, speculation has started in political circles whether Sharad Pawar would replace Sonia Gandhi as the Chairman of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Sources in the NCP have denied that Pawar was a candidate for the position, but Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut appears to have welcomed such a move. Pawar after all is the senior-most leader within the UPA, and was also a prime ministerial candidate following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, till he withdrew in favour of P.V. Narasimha Rao. There are a number of Congress leaders, past and present, who believe that the Maharashtra strongman has the ability to take on the challenge posed by the BJP and the NDA. However, it is most unlikely that the Congress would allow Pawar to take over the leadership role since it continues to be the largest Opposition party, despite its reduced numbers and humiliating performance in the last two Lok Sabha elections.

In 2004, after Sonia Gandhi declined to pursue prime ministerial ambitions due to whatever reasons, Lalu Prasad Yadav demanded that the issue should be discussed and formalised by the various alliance partners within the UPA. At that point, Makhan Lal Fotedar, who had played a stellar role in forging the alliance, made it categorically clear to the Bihar politician that the prerogative of who should lead the government would remain with the Congress and had nothing to do with the alliance partners. Thus, this paved the way for Dr Manmohan Singh being nominated by Sonia for the prime ministership.

Times of course have changed and many allies do not see Rahul donning the mantle of the UPA chairman; he is reluctant to even accept the presidentship of his own party and has chosen to distance himself from those who have been questioning his style of functioning. The Gandhis have also been considerably weakened by the passing away of Ahmed Patel, who was Sonia’s chief strategist and organised everything for her behind the scenes. Leaders within the Congress do acknowledge that Pawar has wide acceptability, and had it not been for his efforts, the government in Maharashtra would not have been formed. They believe that whether Pawar takes over as the UPA chairman would depend on who would become the Congress president. If there is a dummy president of the party who is a mere proxy for the Gandhis, his elevation would not be difficult. However, if a leader of gravitas takes over as the Congress chief, he would look at greener pastures for himself rather than permitting Pawar to showcase himself as a possible challenger to Narendra Modi in 2024.

The need of the hour is that the Opposition parties must have greater unity on major issues instead of squabbling over posts. There has also been a talk in some quarters that Uddhav Thackeray could be also a suitable PM candidate, in order to blunt the BJP’s Hindutva card. All these are conjectures and till politics takes a concrete shape, nothing can be said with conviction. Pawar has the qualifications. But he is both astute and perceptive. He would wait for the Congress to make the first move in this direction rather than throwing his hat in the ring.

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