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A reprieve for Pawar

By V. Venkatesan

"FOR ME, the agni pariksha (ordeal by fire) is over," exulted Maharashtra Chief Minister Sharad Pawar after a Division Bench of the Supreme Court absolved him last fortnight of the charge of corrupt practices during an election campaign.

Relieved he certainly was, for the ruling reversed a damning order of the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court that he was guilty of character assassination while campaigning for a Congress(I) candidate in the May 1991 parliamentary elections. That verdict came in March 1993--barely weeks after Pawar, the Union Defence Minister, returned reluctantly to his home turf to replace Sudhakarrao Naik; it hung Damocles' sword-like over him, till the apex court, to which he went in appeal, exonerated him.

The charges related to certain injudicious remarks Pawar made on the stump while canvassing for Yashwant Rao Gadakh in the South Ahmednagar constituency. Gadakh alleged that Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil, a former Congress MP and his nearest rival, had paid Rs 20 lakh to the Janata Dal candidate in order to make him withdraw from the fray. And Pawar, then Chief Minister, insinuated that Vikhe-Patil would resort to other such unethical practices. He had, he said, no objection to the people of the constituency accepting gifts from Vikhe-Patil--this was, after all, a means of propagating socialism, he jested--provided they were not influenced by these while voting.

Gadakh won, but the Aurangabad Bench declared his election void and passed strictures against him and Pawar for their statements which, it said, amounted to corrupt practices under the Representation of the People Act. It also held that Vikhe-Patil, who had finished second, must be declared to have been duly elected.

The Supreme Court set aside the order, but not without administering Pawar a rap on the knuckles. His statements, though not amounting to a corrupt practice under law, "do not measure up to the desired level of electioneering" by top leaders, the judges said. The remark about receiving gifts "exhibits a bizarre perception of socialism... Intended as sarcasm, it depicts poor taste."

But a relieved Pawar, shrugging off the judicial reproach of his unrefined campaign rhetoric, was already looking ahead. Asked by newsmen if the path was now clear for a return to Delhi, where he has always made clear his heart is, Pawar merely smiled. But that was eloquent enough. n

(Published in Frontline, December 17, 1993)

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