God save India ! Is Sharad Pawar offering himself as a secular alternative to Modi? The fast approaching 2014 general elections is probably the last opportunity for one of Indiaâ€™s most prominent politicians, Sharad Pawar, to realise his unfulfilled dream of becoming Prime Minister. From declaring repeatedly in 2012 that he wonâ€™t contest the next Lok Sabha elections â€œor even seek to enter the Rajya Sabhaâ€, Pawar is now allowing party colleagues to project him as a possible â€œconsensus candidateâ€ for the prime ministership. In the course of a recent TV interview with journalist Prabhu Chawla, the Union agriculture ministerâ€™s senior colleague in the NCP, Praful Patel said, â€œIf there was a situation where there is a consensus on the issueâ€¦then Sharad Pawar will be certainly ready (to become prime minister).â€ Patel added in the next breath that this discussion was premature at this stage. When you read between the lines, the message that comes through is: â€œYes, Mr. Pawar is available as a secular alternative to Narendra Modi. The political situation is fluid, but this is a possibility.â€ Pawar will most likely shrug off Patelâ€™s comment by terming it as his personal view. However, the fact is that Pawar has already tempered his own stance of â€œnot contesting the next Lok Sabha electionsâ€ as he had declared first in an interview to the Marathi news channel IBN-Lokmat last year. Barely three months ago in an interview to India Today, he had added a rider to his stated intention of wanting to renounce parliamentary politics. â€œI am now planning to leave parliamentary politics, if my party will let me,â€ Pawar had said, thus leaving room for â€œpossibilitiesâ€. Having become an MLA in 1967 at age 27, Pawar can win his own seat by sitting at home. The party may well ask him to take a call after the 2014 polls, as even that single seat would matter in the post-election numbers game. In that same interview to India Today, Pawar made some perceptive comments on what to expect in the 2014 elections. When asked about the future of small parties, this is what he said: â€œI donâ€™t see either of the major two parties getting a good response in the next elections. Regional forces will be an important factor. They will have to work together on some common programme. But the thinking of the regional forces is altogether so extreme and so different that it will be difficult to provide stability. Those who will be able to muster good numbers from the state, they will have the strength. I understand strength, I respect strength. But strength should not lead to arrogance of power. If the people who will ultimately decide the destiny of this country are filled with arrogance, then it will be difficult to bring stability. For the larger interest of the nation, a major party, either the Congress or BJP has to be part of any government, with good numbers.â€ While it was only recently that the BJP projected Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as their prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 polls, Pawar had grasped the developing situation at least three months back. Modiâ€™s choice is already straining the NDA and is most likely to rupture the alliance as it exists. The Congress has its own leadership woes; is facing a strong anti-incumbency sentiment and has virtually lost Andhra Pradesh where the Telangana issue is on a boil and thereâ€™s the YSR Congress to confront. Pawar seems bang on when he says that he doesnâ€™t see either the Congress or the BJP â€œgetting a good responseâ€ in the 2014 polls. This veteran of many political battles is clear that â€œregional forces will be an important factorâ€ and that â€œthose who will be able to muster good numbers from the state will have the strength (read NCP, for example). During the time of NCPâ€™s formation in 1999, Chandrababu Naiduâ€™s Telgu Desam Party (TDP) had emerged as an iconic regional party because of its valuable support to the Vajpayee government. Naidu was treated lavishly by the BJP like the favoured son-in-law who couldnâ€™t be displeased. The NCP has contested three general and state assembly elections since inception in 1999 when it won six Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra. It has never secured more than nine out of 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, including the one won by Pawar in the 2004 polls. In the three state assembly elections that it has contested so far, the NCPâ€™s best performance was in 2004 when it won 71 seats- two more than the Congress. Although deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar says it was a mistake not to take the Chief Ministerâ€™s post after the 2004 polls, the fact is that the NCP consciously bargained for three additional portfolios and the deputy chief ministerâ€™s post rather than demand the CMâ€™s post. Although the NCP and the Congress run an alliance government in Maharashtra, the NCP has never hesitated to strike alliances with the BJP and the Shiv Sena to secure power in the Zilla Parishad and the municipal council elections. In March, 2012, the NCP outsmarted the Congress by secretly aligning with the BJP and the Shiv Sena to secure the top posts at 27 ZPs which had gone to the polls a month earlier. The NCP justified this by saying that there was nothing wrong in such an alliance at the â€œlocal levelâ€. In Pune, the NCP aligned with the BJP-Shiv Sena in 2007 to break Congress MP Suresh Kalmadiâ€™s hold over the Pune Municipal Corporation. Known famously as Ajit Pawarâ€™s â€œPune Patternâ€, the NCP since then has been controlling the PMC. In a recent newspaper interview, deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar indicated his impatience to occupy the CMâ€™s chair and this, he said would be the goal after the 2014 polls. Among the 13 prime ministers of India, Rajiv Gandhi was the youngest at age 40 and Morarji Desai the oldest at age 81. Manmohan Singh became prime minister at 72 and is running 81 now. In 2014, Sharad Pawar would have entered his 74th year- a full 10 years older than Narendra Modi- and still find acceptability as a â€œconsensus prime ministerâ€. Although tainted because of his dubious involvement in Lavasa, and the serious corruption charges against a string of NCP ministers, Pawar has managed to land on his feet after every major controversy. As 2014 approaches, expect the NCP and the Congress to be daggers drawn in Maharashtra. The Pawars are pursuing a larger agenda for which they need to bite their alliance partner where it hurts most.