It was not the usual storm in a teacup this time when octogenarian Sharad Pawar stepped down as chief of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) on May 2, causing a predictable uproar in Maharashtra’s political circles. Three days later, after much hype and hoopla, the Maratha leader took back his decision, out of respect for the “strong sentiments” of the party cadre and other political leaders.
In the recent Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) poll, the combined might of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA)—consisting of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Thackeray faction), the NCP and the Congress—stole the show over Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s BJP-Shiv Sena grouping. The NCP held on to western Maharashtra, while the BJP took Vidarbha in the east. But in Pune, widely considered Pawar’s backyard, NCP rebels backed by the BJP trounced the party-backed panel.
Even as a Pawar acolyte struggled to explain how the resignation episode was a clever move to disentangle one’s feet and gain traction ahead of the 2024 election season both in Delhi and Maharashtra, other loyalists argued that the Pune loss was only a minor setback. One such commentator pointed to an editorial in a Marathi daily, which quoted a Marathi poem by Suresh Bhat: Ranguni Rangat Sarya, Ranga Mazha Vegala/ Guntuni Guntyaat Saarya, Paay Maajha Mokala, which roughly translates as “Although drenched in different colours, my colour remains distinct, and although stuck in a larger tangle, my feet remain free.”
An accompanying photograph showed Pawar literally personifying the lines in the poem, sitting unmoved amidst the din of his supporters shouting to keep their saheb back at any cost. His wife Pratibha Pawar, accompanying him, could not help but grin at the goings-on.
The man caught in a bind in the present shindig is nephew Ajit Pawar, who, despite being the Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly, is believed to be playing political footsie with the BJP. On the day of Sharad Pawar’s resignation, he was on his feet, gesturing with his hands, urging party workers to end their protest. “This had to happen someday. Let’s not be emotional about it. I just spoke to Kaki [aunt]. She told me he will not change his decision… the new president will work under the guidance of Pawar saheb. The party will work under him and him only,” he said.
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What transpired a couple of days later at the closed-door meeting of the jumbo panel nominated by Pawar to decide his future course did not attest to the nephew’s assertion. Insider accounts of these proceedings clearly hint that Ajit Pawar, along with Praful Patel, the NCP national vice president and Rajya Sabha member, tried to push for Supriya Sule, Pawar’s daughter and parliamentarian, to helm the party.
Reportedly, it was P.C. Chacko, a contemporary of Pawar and president of the NCP’s Kerala unit, who put his foot down and persuaded panel members that their job was to reject his resignation, not to find his successor. He was supported among others by Jayant Patil, the chief of the Maharashtra unit, and this compelled Patel to shred the “first” resolution and go ahead with a second draft presenting Pawar with a fait accompli, an insider said.
“It isn’t the greatest shot, but it’s crucial in a life-and-death situation, especially when facing fast bowling on a bouncy wicket. Going forward in such a situation may be dangerous as there is a chance of getting out. Rather you go back in the crease, get on top of the ball, and play it with soft hands. It helps keep your wicket,” said a Pawar confidante and cricket enthusiast.
Cat among the pigeons
The rumours began more than a month ago, when Ajit Pawar’s statements set the cat among the pigeons. On April 8, he had held forth on how the BJP came to power in 2014 and then spread its reach to remote areas of the country due to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “If this isn’t PM Modi’s magic, what is,” he had asked reporters.
The previous day, Sharad Pawar had told the Adani-owned NDTV that attacking industrialists like Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani to score political points was “not right”. His party had already taken a contrarian stand on the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe that is being demanded by the Congress and other opposition parties. This was seen as putting a spanner in the works of Rahul Gandhi’s anti-Adani campaign and the Congress outreach to other opposition parties to consolidate a united front ahead of a crucial election year.
The Pawars kept turning up the heat until the end of April, making their allies and even party workers wonder if the nephew would jump ship and if the uncle would approve. Keeping speculation rife, Pawar even cast doubts on whether the parties constituting the MVA would stay together until 2024. “There is willingness to work together. But mere desire is not always enough. Seat allotment, whether there are other issues or not, all this has not been discussed yet, so how can I tell you,” he told reporters on April 23.
- The three-day resignation drama in NCP of its president Sharad Pawar and his comeback raises more questions than answers about the Maha Vikas Aghadi’s future.
- Ajit Pawar’s statements praising Narendra Modi more than a month ago set the cat among the pigeons. Rumours of him being in touch with the BJP is doing the rounds in Maharashtra though both have denied it.
- In the revised edition of his autobiography, Pawar refers to Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray’s lack of political acumen and his resignation within days of a rebellion in the Sena, which paved the way for Eknath Shinde to become the Chief Minister.
Now, however, the three-day resignation drama appears to have set the record straight, albeit raising more questions than answers about the MVA’s future. The function at Yashwantrao Chavan Centre in Nariman Point where Pawar announced his resignation was organised to release the revised edition of his autobiography, Lok Maze Sangati (People Are My Companions). As is typical of Pawar, the updated version has uncomplimentary references to his allies.
The chapter on Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray is the most unflattering, referring to his public appearances in shirts and trousers and the use of Facebook live as appealing to the middle class. “But due to his health, he had some limitations. During the COVID pandemic, Uddhav’s two or three visits to the Mantralaya were not going well for us [the allies],” Pawar writes.
He further points to Thackeray’s lack of political acumen. “In politics, one must act swiftly to protect power. When the MVA was about to fall, he withdrew from the process in the first stage itself,” Pawar writes, referring to Thackeray’s resignation within days of a rebellion in the Sena, which paved the way for Eknath Shinde to become the Chief Minister. The Supreme Court decision on May 11 that the MVA government could not be restored as Thackeray had resigned without facing the floor test adds credence to this view.
The new chapters do not spare even Ajit Pawar over his early-morning swearing-in as Deputy Chief Minister when Devendra Fadnavis was anointed Chief Minister in 2019.
Meanwhile, the BJP leadership in Maharashtra, holding its cards close to the chest, appears to have felt it prudent to wash its hands of Ajit Pawar. Fadnavis, now Deputy Chief Minister, has been uncharacteristically quiet on the latest developments within the NCP while Chandrashekhar Bawankule, the BJP’s State unit president, speaking in Pune on May 8, denied being in contact with Ajit Pawar for the past four months.
“We never contacted Ajitdada, and imaginary news is being circulated,” Bawankule told reporters. This, even as a war of words broke out between the NCP and the Sena.
The May 8 edition of Saamana, the mouthpiece of Uddhav Thackeray’s faction, carried a stinging editorial by Sanjay Raut, Rajya Sabha member and Saamana’s executive editor, stating that Pawar had failed to groom a political heir to take the NCP forward. It was perceived as a fitting response to Pawar’s comments in his autobiography. “We do not give any importance to what he [Raut] writes in Saamana. It is his right to say what he wants. We are satisfied with what we do,” Pawar retorted while touring Satara district in western Maharashtra.
Pawar cannot afford to rest on a pyrrhic victory from the scripted resignation drama and seems to have decided to hit the ground immediately. He was to have spoken to activists protesting against an upcoming refinery project in Barsu Solgaon in the Konkan region, but headed instead to his home turf, the sugar bowl of Maharashtra, which had been a traditional Congress stronghold until the NCP was created from its rib in 1999.
The districts of Pune, Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur, and Solapur are crucial for the NCP as the BJP, and the Sena in its earlier avatar, have made sizeable dents here. The recent events have led to a perceptible churn in the region, which accounts for 58 of the State’s 288 Assembly constituencies, besides a dozen Lok Sabha seats. The political buzz in this western belt was that it was the NCP chief’s desire to secure a place for his daughter by banishing the recalcitrant nephew that was behind the resignation drama. On the other hand, bête noire Prithviraj Chavan, a former Congress Chief Minister and Union Minister, who hails from the region, described the NCP as the “B team” of the BJP after it fielded candidates in the Karnataka Assembly election.
PTI reported that Chavan, while speaking at Belagavi on May 3, expressed displeasure about Pawar’s claim in his autobiography that the “arrogance” and “stubbornness” of the Congress leadership had delayed talks during the MVA’s formation in 2019. “It is Pawar’s perception,” Chavan countered, but did admit that “such deliberations do take time and there were heated arguments between Congress and NCP leaders, as narrated in the book”. This was a day before Ajit Pawar quietly walked out and formed a short-lived government by joining hands with the BJP in November 2019. “If this discord was the reason Ajit Pawar joined hands with the BJP, then could there be some truth to the Fadnavis claim that their early morning swearing-in had Sharad Pawar’s blessings,” Chavan asked.
Chavan spoke to Frontline when he was busy campaigning in Karnataka. He expressed confidence that the resignation drama would not affect the MVA coalition. The Congress remains committed to stopping the BJP from coming to power in Maharashtra at any cost, he said, but added that with the NCP and the BJP in dilemmas of their own, the future of politics in Maharashtra could be tough to predict.
Commentators, including academic intellectuals and grassroots activists in the region, predict that Pawar’s political journey will continue to be influenced by his roots in a long-standing tradition of progressive thought.
Western Maharashtra saw the birth of movements such as Jyotirao Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj, and the Prati Sarkar, an anti-imperial peasant uprising whose leaders went on to become the leading lights of the Peasants and Workers Party of India (PWP), a Marxist political party, besides the progressive and foresighted reforms initiated by Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur. Both Pawar and Chavan belong to families who trace their roots to the PWP.
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Pawar often invokes the combined ideals and legacy of the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar troika to appeal to bahujan—euphemism for non-Brahmin castes—sentiment and support. Led by the Marathas, the bahujan samaj served as a bulwark for the Congress and the NCP until the advent of the BJP-Sena’s aggressive Hindutva in the 1990s.
Political scientist Suhas Palshikar believes the reformist legacy combined with the Warkari movement rooted in the bhakti tradition did help curb the spread of rabid Hindutva in Maharashtra, but the fortress is crumbling and may soon become a “myth”.
“Unless some leader, not necessarily a political one, stands up for this Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar tradition, it will be defeated,” said Palshikar, and hoped that “someone like Pawar is worried about its eroding influence in Maharashtra”.
Palshikar noted that although Maharashtra’s voters may not be fully communalised, the BJP would continue to try hard to do so, as it has little else to fall back upon. “I think we are sitting on a paradoxical situation. As a party, it [BJP] may not be popular enough, but the campaign is on. That machine is working systematically,” he said, referring to the polarising “love jehad” rallies that caused a stir recently.
Dr Bharat Patankar, leader of the left-wing Shramik Mukti Dal, believes that the majority of people in Maharashtra are “nauseated” by the “brazen anarchy” unleashed by the BJP since toppling the MVA government last year. “Now that their objective is fulfilled, Eknath Shinde will be dumped soon. Pawar has read the political situation well,” he said. According to Patankar, the resignation episode demonstrated that “Pawar was his own man and not scared of the Central agencies”.
Patankar believes the people of western Maharashtra remain committed to the Phule-Shahu-Ambedkar legacy, but he warns the NCP and Congress leadership against complacency. Speaking of the need to reach out to the grassroots, he said, “A host of intellectuals, academics, activists, farmers, women, and youth with progressive leanings are committed to defeating the BJP. This vast potential is waiting to be tapped in this region.”
These assertions sound strong, but doubts continue to persist over the Pawar uncle-nephew duo and its next moves. This means the Maharashtra political crisis is far from over yet.
Anosh Malekar is an independent journalist based in Pune.