What had been in the offing for a while has finally become reality. NCP leader Ajit Pawar, who was the Leader of Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly until July 1, crossed over to join the Maharashtra government on July 2 as Deputy Chief Minister, along with eight other members of his party, who also became Ministers. Ajit Pawar had finally arrived at the BJP camp, which he had been trying to do since 2019.
On July 2, Ajit Pawar met party MLAs and submitted a letter of support to the Eknath Shinde-led government to Governor Ramesh Bais. His faction claims to have the support of 42 of 53 of the party’s MLAs. However, the letter of support was not released to the media. The Ajit Pawar group has also not officially declared the names or number of the supporting MLAs.
Second coup in year two
July 2 was also the first anniversary of the Shinde government, which came into existence after Shinde broke ranks from the Shiv Sena, rebelling against his leader Uddhav Thackeray. Thus, a year after, the BJP succeeded in breaking the NCP, another strong pillar of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA).
On his decision to join the government, Ajit Pawar said: “India is progressing under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That’s why, though there are some differences with the BJP, the NCP has decided to join hands with government for the progress of Maharashtra.”
He is joined by Praful Patel, who was recently nominated as national executive president of NCP and is known to be a close confidant of Sharad Pawar. Some prominent leaders from the Ajit Pawar faction who became Ministers on July 2 are Chhagan Bhujbal, Dilip Walse Patil, and Hassan Mushrif.
Bhujbal was in jail on charges of corruption in 2015, when the BJP had levelled serious allegations against him. Similarly, Mushrif has been under the scanner; his house was raided by the Enforcement Directorate as well as the Income Tax department several times in the past two years. He was also facing allegations of corruption by BJP leaders.
Walse Patil, who was Home Minister in the MVA government, was also known to be close to Sharad Pawar. His decision to go with Ajit Pawar has surprised many observers and given birth to speculation that Sharad Pawar himself wanted to let these leaders go.
Sharad Pawar’s reaction
However, in a strong rebuttal, Sharad Pawar denied any support to the government and put the blame on Prime Minister Modi saying he was the chief architect of this defection. He said: “I will go to the people of the State to let them know that PM Modi is using his power to do all these things.”
His tour began on July 3 itself; Sharad Pawar reached Karad, a city in Satara district and the hometown of Yashwantrao Chavan, his mentor. He visited Chavan’s samadhi and said that he will build the party again.
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Asked whether the party name and symbol would go to the Ajit Pawar faction, Sharad Pawar said: “I have fought elections on many symbols and in the name of four different parties. That doesn’t matter. I will not go to court. I will go to the people. I have full faith in the people of Maharashtra, especially young people.”
At the same time, the NCP has decided to move a disqualification plea with Maharashtra Assembly Speaker against Ajit Pawar and the eight MLAs who became Ministers.
Support for Ajit Pawar
Sources said that 13 MLAs were present during the swearing-in ceremony. Three of them returned to the Sharad Pawar group saying they were not aware about Ajit’s moves. On the basis of this, NCP has moved a disqualification plea against Ajit Pawar and eight other leaders.
Although Ajit Pawar moved fast on the last weekend of June, the preparation for this switch had been going on for six months. After the MVA lost power in the State, NCP MLAs were becoming increasingly restless. Previously, Ajit had taken oath in November 2019 as Deputy Chief Minister along with the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as Chief Minister. Shiv Sena had just broken away from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
But that was short-lived. Now, even though he had been watching the growing rumblings within the party, he was not ready to take the plunge. Top NCP sources told Frontline that a group of leaders took the lead this time and convinced Ajit Pawar that they would stand by him.
Praful Patel, who is being investigated for the procurement of Boeing 777s for Air India when he was Aviation Minister in the 2009-14 period, joined Ajit Pawar. This gave confidence to Chhagan Bhujbal, Dilip Walse Patil, Sunil Tatkare (who is close to Ajit Pawar), and Dhananjay Munde.
Sources said that nearly 30 MLAs, apart from those who became Ministers, had expressed support but Ajit Pawar was cautious. He asked the senior leaders to convince Sharad Pawar to join the NDA.
Since March this year, these leaders had been meeting Sharad Pawar to consider joining the NDA. When the calls grew louder in April, Sharad Pawar did the unexpected: he announced his resignation as national president. On that day, it was clear to Sharad Pawar who would stand with him. He made his daughter Supriya Sule the national executive president. For the time being, it looked like the matter was settled. But it was not.
In the third week of June, Ajit Pawar made a public demand to become State NCP president at a party function in Mumbai where all leaders were present. Immediately, Bhujbal also made a similar demand. Sharad Pawar, who has seen many monsoons and summers in politics, got a sense of what was happening within but he merely remarked that it was the NCP’s strength that everyone wanted to be in organisation. To discuss the demands of Ajit Pawar and Bhujbal and the larger issue of organisation, he called a meeting of senior leaders on July 6. Maharashtra’s Assembly session is set to commence on July 17. Ajit Pawar sensed that Sharad Pawar would clip his wings further by accepting his resignation as Leader of the Opposition and moved fast to rebel against his uncle.
Repercussions on State politics
It is true that Ajit Pawar’s rebellion will again change the dynamics of the State’s politics. A year ago, the BJP succeeded in snatching power from the MVA by breaking the Shiv Sena.
Recent surveys had shown that the MVA was stronger and ahead of the Shiv Sena (Shinde) and BJP in popularity. But now the NCP is broken and it is anyone’s guess how many leaders will stand with the 83-year-old Sharad Pawar, whose age will certainly matter in the current situation.
Sharad Pawar is still passionate and active, but there are limitations for touring across the State. And apart from him, the NCP has few strong personalities. In this context, a sizable share of of the NCP’s vote bank will split, giving the BJP-led alliance the upper hand.
It remains to be seen whether Sharad Pawar has a support base among the youth in Maharashtra. In his immediate statement in the wake of Ajit Pawar’s defection, he said: “These old faces were made by me. It’s time to change them. Now you will get to see totally new faces as our party leaders.”
On the other hand, the BJP has brutally broken the Shiv Sena and the NCP and has a sizable chunk of both parties with it. Also, all the players with the BJP are resourceful. With a weakened opposition, BJP will likely become more aggressive in the coming days. This could have a long-lasting impact on Maharashtra’s politics and its sociocultural landscape.