With the London Olympics beginning next week, it is hardly surprising that sporting terms have acquired currency, even in politics. The buzzword these days is ‘cornered’ and everyone is suddenly getting ‘cornered’. The NDA was ‘cornered’ when APJ Abdul Kalam decided not to contest the presidential election and the Shiv Sena and Janata Dal (United) broke ranks. The pugnacious Mamata Banerjee was well and truly ‘cornered’ when she grudgingly endorsed Pranab Mukherjee’s candidature. And on Friday evening, I heard a venerable editor say with astonishing certainty that Sharad Pawar had unfurled the banner of revolt because he too had been ‘cornered’ by the Congress.

To be fair, the cornering of Pawar and his Nationalist Congress Party was entirely unanticipated. After the so-called cornering of Mamata, it had become conventional wisdom that a resurgent Congress was all set for a show of cornering. The much-delayed economic reforms were set to be back on track despite the underperforming monsoon, Hamid Ansari’s re-election as Vice President was expected to be smooth sailing and Rahul Gandhi had given his in-principle approval to the orchestrated clamour that he abandon his ‘cameo role’ for some sustained political engagement. In short, happy days were back again and it was thumbs-up for the Congress and UPA.

So why did Pawar choose this most inopportune of moments to show that he wasn’t a circus ka sher (a description accorded to him in the mid-1990s)? Surely a seasoned politician like him wasn’t going to walk out of the government because he didn’t like the new seating arrangements in the Cabinet room?

If whispers from the top echelons of the Congress in Maharashtra are any guide, Pawar was feeling ‘cornered’ because of a monumental irrigation scam involving NCP ministers and the kerfuffle over the involvement of Chaggan Bhujbal’s relatives in the construction of the Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi. Both these scams, it was said, were on the verge of becoming public and a ‘cornered’ Pawar imagined he had no alternative but to threaten a walk out. Since coalition dharma has come to mean the right of every party to make their pile without fear or inhibition, the NCP chose to assert his political right. After all, or so the grapevine has it, wasn’t that at the centre of the midnight deal the Samajwadi Party chief negotiated with the Congress when he left Mamata high and dry?

More to the point, why should Pawar have felt ‘cornered’? True, he has merely 9 MPs in the Lok Sabha. But Ajit Singh, the newest entrant to the UPA Government, has only 4 MPs. This insignificant number hasn’t prevented the RLD’s trapeze artiste from dispensing with the services of a man who was proving to be a ‘difficult’ Director General of Civil Aviation. Nor has it prevented the mysterious loss of a noting that sought an inquiry into the safety standards of a beleaguered private airline.

Ajit Singh doesn’t seem to feel cornered by the media outrage, and neither is the Congress shamefaced about the possible shenanigans of its small ally. Why, therefore, should Pawar feel ‘cornered’ by the purposeful appearance of two scams in Maharashtra? Is the Congress feeling ‘cornered’ and flaunting a red face because sensitive defence procurement files by the kilo load have been shown to have been passed on to an arms dealer whose qualification in life is that his father coined Indira Gandhi’s famous comeback slogan in 1980?

The significant feature of these strange goings-on and cornerings is that the Government has lost all sense of the one thing that keeps democracy and civilised governance ticking—the sense of shame. There is no shame attached to the complete subversion of the CBI—so much so that most of the Twitter postings after Pawar announced his revolt were centred on the imminent arrival of the CBI on the NCP leader’s doorstep. There is no loss of face for the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission—a man with a reputation for being one of India’s foremost modernisers—as he doles out money to states on the strength of political calculations.

Politics within the UPA has touched the heights of cynicism, and Pawar need not fear if the Congress wishes to sully his reputation with charges both true and imaginary. That is because he appears to have realised something that the crisis managers of the Congress seem blissfully unaware of: that prolonged association with the Government is yielding diminishing returns.

Walking out of the Cabinet and the Government may seem a risky proposition if a turnaround was in sight. Pawar may yet settle for a patchwork compromise that safeguards his interests in Maharashtra and, perhaps, even leads to the removal of Prithviraj Chavan as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. After all, it is not mere the NCP but builder lobbies linked to Congress leaders who are baying for the CMs blood. But that would be tantamount to a short-term truce. In the long-run, Pawar can only be enthused by the example of Jagan Mohan Reddy who has taken on the Congress and kept his political clout intact by going directly to the people and stirring up regional sentiment.

With the BJP still unable to take full advantage of the anti-incumbency against the UPA, there is still a vast constituency that can be mobilised for a Federal Front which will have a say in 2014. Pawar, it would seem, is indicating his preference for that game.