Glimpses 2019: Politicians who went from zero to hero this year

These leaders began 2019 battered by the BJP, the colossus of modern Indian politics

Pawar Dushyant Hemant Clockwise: A collage of Haryana Deputy CM Dushyant Chautala (PTI), Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren (PTI) and Sharad Pawar addressing a rally in Satara amid rain (Official Twitter handle)

The political comeback. Everyone, including even the cynic, loves to take note of those politicians or parties that have staged comebacks after all sorts of setbacks. Perhaps, India’s love for the political comeback has to do with our very history itself. The great epics, Mahabharat and Ramayana, devote considerable space to the time their protagonists spent in exile before they emerged victorious.

The political comeback has also been a theme in Independent India’s political history. The first non-Congress prime minister of India was Morarji Desai, once considered a frontrunner to succeed Jawaharlal Nehru. Desai appeared set to dive into obscurity after he parted ways with Indira Gandhi in 1969, only to see his Congress (O) get a mere 16 seats in the 1971 Lok Sabha polls.

However, Desai became one of the faces of the opposition to Indira in 1975 and was among the plethora of opposition leaders arrested during the Emergency. With the Janata Party unseating Indira Gandhi in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections, Desai was elected as its leader in Parliament and thus become prime minister.

Desai was just one of the faces of the opposition to Indira Gandhi. Another 'comeback man' gave the opposition to Indira Gandhi a sense of direction in 1974-75: Jayaprakash Narayan. Narayan, a Gandhian in convictions, had retired from public life in 1972, citing poor health. However, he returned to centre stage in 1974, supporting student agitations. In addition to helping dislodge Indira Gandhi and the Congress for the first time, Narayan was also instrumental in uniting forces with diametrically opposing ideologies, such as the CPI(M) and the RSS, for a common purpose.

The likes of Morarji Desai and Jayaprakash Narayan had at least a few years to occupy political centre stage against the Congress, the political behemoth of the day then. In comparison, the achievements of the comeback men of 2019, selected by THE WEEK, may seem minuscule and limited to the field of elections.

These leaders began 2019 being battered by the BJP, the colossus of modern-day Indian politics. But they managed to end 2019 by clawing their way back to power in their states, against all the odds.

Sharad Pawar: Cancer, corruption charges and the perception of being an opportunist have done little to dent Sharad Pawar’s image of being the ‘wily old Maratha’. Pawar is a three-time chief minister of Maharashtra who very nearly became prime minister after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Pawar spent much of 2019 staring at political oblivion and the threat of his Nationalist Congress Party withering away.

The NCP won just four seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls in Maharashtra, its main political base. In the run-up to the Maharashtra Assembly polls, the NCP was in the news for mostly one reason: One or the other ex-MLA or MP from the party was joining the ruling BJP or Shiv Sena. The loss of leaders was even personal for Sharad Pawar: Ranajagjitsinh Patil, a relative, joined the BJP in September. Sharad Pawar was summoned by the Enforcement Directorate in connection with a scam at a cooperative bank in September.

Adding to Sharad Pawar’s woes, the Congress, which had been the ‘senior’ partner of the NCP in Maharashtra for over a decade, ran a less-than-enthusiastic campaign for the Assembly elections.

Sharad Pawar became the focal point of the opposition campaign, often inviting derisive comments from BJP leaders. The image of Sharad Pawar addressing a rally in Satara in heavy rain became the stand-out visual of the election.

The fact that the NCP won 54 seats in the Assembly polls was almost entirely attributed to Sharad Pawar’s dogged campaign. Sharad Pawar’s reputation as a canny political operator came to the fore in the month-long drama after the declaration of results as the BJP and Shiv Sena strove to make up numbers to form a government.

Sharad Pawar did not appear to flinch even as his nephew, Ajit Pawar, formed a coalition government with the BJP, which lasted a mere three days. Sharad Pawar is credited with being behind the move to make Uddhav Thackeray the leader of the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition that came to power in Maharashtra in late November.

Dushyant Chautala: When Dushyant Chautala formed the Jannayak Janata Party (JJP) in December 2018 after being expelled from the Indian National Lok Dal, he was joining a crowded opposition space in Haryana. Dushyant and his father, Ajay Chautala, were expelled by the INLD chief Om Prakash Chautala, his grandfather.

Dushyant had named his new party in memory of his great grandfather, Devi Lal, a titan of Haryana politics. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Dushyant had become the youngest MP in Parliament, winning from Hisar at the age of 26.

But the appeal of dynasty did little to help the JJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The party contested seven of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in Haryana and had an alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party in the remaining three seats. The JJP lost its deposit in six of these seven seats; the only exception was the performance of Dushyant. And even he lost in Hisar by over 3 lakh votes as the BJP won all 10 seats.

Despite the electoral mauling, Dushyant and the JJP adopted an overtly populist campaign line for the 2019 Haryana Assembly polls. This was even as the BJP had set itself a target of winning 75 seats in the 90-member Assembly. The JJP concentrated its campaign on issues close to the Jat community, such as a loan waiver to farmers and pensions for the elderly. The stand-out promise of the JJP was its commitment to promote 75 per cent reservation to local residents of Haryana in jobs. This resonated in a state with an unemployment rate of nearly 30 per cent in August this year.

The JJP contested 87 of the 90 seats in the Haryana Assembly polls. The party won 10 seats as the election threw up a fractured mandate, with the BJP short of the majority mark by six seats. After two days of keeping both the BJP and Congress guessing, Dushyant decided to support the BJP in forming a government, becoming deputy chief minister in the new dispensation. While Dushyant was criticised with going with the BJP after having campaigned against it, he claimed to have always held the interests of Haryana at heart. Less than a year after he was thrown out by the INLD, Dushyant has effectively sidelined the older regional party.

Hemant Soren: Hemant Soren’s embrace of political leadership has some similarities to that of Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv took to full-time politics after the death of his brother, Sanjay Gandhi, in a plane crash in 1980.

Hemant, the younger son of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha founder Shibu Soren, contested his first Assembly election in 2005, losing from Dumka. However, Hemant was thrust into leadership of the JMM after the sudden death of his brother Durga Soren in May 2009 from a brain haemorrhage.

Durga was considered as the future leader of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and natural successor to Shibu Soren. Hemant was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 2009 and by the next year became deputy chief minister in a government led by the BJP. In 2013, Hemant became chief minister with the support of the Congress and RJD after a bout of President’s rule.

Though he lost his own Assembly seat of Dumka in the 2014 election as the BJP won power, Hemant became a strident critic of the saffron dispensation. Hemant was consistent in raising issues of the tribal community and failings of welfare schemes such as flaws in implementation of direct benefit transfers and protection of tribal land.

However, Hemant’s criticisms of the BJP seemed to have little impact in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as the saffron party won 12 of the 14 Lok Sabha seats in Jharkhand. Shibu Soren himself lost from Dumka by nearly 50,000 seats as the JMM alliance won just two seats.

However, Hemant Soren was unperturbed and continued firming up his alliance with the RJD and Congress. As in the past, Hemant focused on local issues in the campaign for the Assembly polls in December such as improvement of welfare schemes even as the BJP highlighted national issues. The JMM alliance won 47 seats in the 81-member Jharkhand Assembly.

As new chief minister of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren has pitched himself firmly in the camp opposite that of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre. One of his first acts as chief minister was to withdraw sedition cases against tribal activists who opposed changes to land tenancy rules during the BJP government's tenure.