What's behind the Sharad Pawar-Gautam Adani meeting?

Their recent meetings have raised eyebrows in political circles

PTI09_23_2023_000174B Deep bond: Pawar and Adani at the inauguration of the Lactoferrin Plant Exympower in Vasna, Ahmedabad | PTI

Hard working, simple and down to earth.

That is how former Union minister and NCP founder Sharad Pawar describes industrialist Gautam Adani in his 2015 autobiography Lok Majhe Sangati (People, My Companions). The Maratha strongman has never shied away from supporting Adani, even when Congress leader Rahul Gandhi launched a scathing attack following the Hindenburg report allegations against the Adani Group. He also opposed the Congress’s demand for a joint parliamentary committee inquiry, and instead favoured a probe by the Supreme Court. He told a news channel that Adani was being targeted.

So Pawar inaugurating an industrial plant with Adani in Ahmedabad on September 23 did not come as a surprise for many. Pawar had no qualms posing for a photograph with Adani. He is also learnt to have visited Adani’s residence and office. Nonetheless, their meeting did raise eyebrows, especially in the Congress that is clearly not comfortable with Pawar’s close ties with Adani.

But Pawar’s lieutenants make light of the meeting. “Pawar saheb was called to inaugurate the plant, so he went there. There is nothing more to it,” said NCP Maharashtra president Jayant Patil. “Pawar has excellent personal relations with not just Adani but most of the industry captains.”

The relationship between Adani and Pawar is almost two decades old and dates back to Adani’s early days as a rising businessman. Pawar knows the Adani family well, too. And, what has deepened their bond is that Adani feels indebted to Pawar for life. A source informed that Adani was in the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai when terrorists laid siege on November 26, 2008. Adani called Pawar for help. The Congress-NCP combine was ruling Maharashtra then and the late R.R. Patil of the NCP was the home minister. Pawar, who was Union agriculture minister then, asked for Adani and a top Maharashtra bureaucrat to be rescued as one of the top priorities. “Since then Adani has been in sort of a personal debt to Pawar,” said the source.

Also, Pawar had put his weight behind Adani when the coal block awarded to his company was cancelled by Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh as it was too close to the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra.

It is said that Praful Patel, once a close aide of Pawar and now a leader in the breakaway NCP group led by Pawar’s nephew Ajit, was instrumental in bringing Adani closer to Pawar. While the autobiography does not throw any light on this, it does mention how Adani entered the thermal power sector on Pawar’s advice. The book mentions that Pawar made the suggestion at an event held in the memory of Patel’s father. Adani then set up a thermal power plant at Tiroda in Gondia, which was Patel’s Lok Sabha constituency.

Adani and Pawar have had two meetings in recent months. One was in April and another in June, just before Ajit’s rebellion. It was speculated that Adani was reaching out to Pawar on behalf of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Similar meetings had taken place in 2014 ahead of the assembly elections in Maharashtra. When the BJP emerged as the single largest party in Maharashtra with 122 of 288 seats, the NCP declared outside support to the Devendra Fadnavis government.

A senior Congress leader said that Modi wants to break the Maha Vikas Aghadi in Maharashtra and INDIA at the national level, which is why Adani is being used to woo Pawar. “The problem is Pawar keeps meeting him and succeeds in sending confusing signals,” said the leader. “He knows that this can create mistrust. So we really don’t know what’s on his mind and whether he will be able to withstand the pressure being applied by Modi through Adani.”

An NCP district president, too, admitted that Pawar’s meetings with Adani are causing confusion among party cadres. “It unnecessarily creates an atmosphere of suspicion at the ground level,” said the NCP leader.

Senior NCP leader Jitendra Awhad disagreed. “Pawar saheb has categorically stated that he went for the function because the project has been started by a farmer from Baramati (Pawar’s home turf),” he explained. “He even gave the name and address of that farmer. So there is no question of creating any confusion.”

Political commentator Abhay Deshpande said that Pawar, the shrewd politician that he is, would never let any industrialist friend decide his political agenda. “What we know for certain is that Adani is the bridge between Pawar and Modi-BJP,” he said. “In 2019, too, the BJP had tried to use the Adani channel to form an alliance with the NCP. There was a meeting between Pawar and Modi, which is public knowledge. But Pawar deftly thwarted those moves and formed the MVA. So Adani cannot dictate things to Pawar. But Pawar has also never hidden his ties with Adani and is not bothered if his meetings are puncturing the narrative that the Congress is trying to create against the Modi-Adani equation.”

A close aide of Shiv Sena (UBT) president Uddhav Thackeray said that too much was being read into these meetings. “We have a political culture in Maharashtra where ruling party leaders attend functions organised by opposition leaders, and it is a very good practice,” he said. “Adani is not even a politician, he is an industry baron and their ties are very old. So we don’t attach political significance to meetings between Adani and Pawar.”