The Election Commission of India (ECI) has upheld the claims made by Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar regarding the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), delivering a decisive blow to the party’s founder and veteran politician, Sharad Pawar, just ahead of the crucial 2024 general election. In its February 6 decision, the ECI has also accepted the new name for Sharad Pawar’s party: “Nationalist Congress Party-Sharadchandra Pawar” for the Rajya Sabha elections scheduled later this month. The development mirrors a similar situation with Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, where the faction led by Chief Minister Eknath Shinde was recognised recently as the original party by the ECI.
With this ruling, Maharashtra’s politics enters a new phase, setting the stage for high-stakes battles in both the upcoming general election and the subsequent Assembly election in October 2024. In its exhaustive 141-page order, the ECI referred to a 1971 Supreme Court judgment, which outlines a triple test approach for resolving such disputes. This approach was also followed in the case between factions of the Shiv Sena. In the NCP dispute, the Commission found the conclusions of the first two tests inconclusive. The first test examines whether the aims and objectives of the party’s constitution are being adhered to by either faction.
However, the ECI noted that neither faction claimed that their group was following the aims while the other was violating them. Regarding the second test, which considers the majority within the party’s organisational body, the Commission found it impossible to conclude due to disputed organisational elections held in 2022.
Despite Sharad Pawar’s faction claiming a majority, they failed to provide evidence regarding the timing and outcomes of these elections. This argument was initially raised by Ajit Pawar’s faction in a petition filed on July 1, 2023, alleging that Sharad Pawar was not abiding by the party’s constitution and rules. However, Sharad Pawar’s faction contended that the matter should be decided by civil courts rather than the ECI, arguing that the Commission has no authority over the party’s internal affairs.
ECI’s ‘triple test’ approach
Consequently, the Commission based its ruling on the third test, which considers the majority of elected representatives. According to affidavits submitted to the ECI, 57 out of 81 MPs, MLAs, and MLCs supported Ajit Pawar, while 19 backed Sharad Pawar. As a result, the ECI accepted Ajit Pawar’s claim to the party and its symbol.
Ajit Pawar, along with eight other MLAs, took oath as cabinet ministers in Eknath Shinde’s government on July 2, 2023. Initially, Ajit Pawar had publicly acknowledged Sharad Pawar as the national president of the party. However, documents submitted to the ECI declared Ajit Pawar as the national president, with Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Praful Patel elected as the national executive president on June 30, 2023. By early July, it became evident that Ajit Pawar had the support of the majority of MLAs and MLCs. Based on this support, Ajit Pawar’s faction asserted itself as the legitimate NCP and petitioned the ECI. The matter had been under consideration since December 2023.
“After losing the battle in the Speaker’s court, Uddhav Thackeray reached out to the masses. This helped garner sympathy among voters. If [Sharad] Pawar’s faction starts doing the same, it would benefit them.”Suhas PalshikarPolitical scientist
Following the ECI’s decision, Ajit Pawar expressed gratitude, stating, “We accept the order with humility. We have been saying that we have the support of almost 50 MLAs and the majority of MLCs. The Election Commission’s order reflects this fact. We are thankful to the Election Commission and to the workers and leaders who stood by us.” The BJP, the alliance partner of NCP, immediately voiced support for Ajit Pawar after the verdict. Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis congratulated Ajit, adding that the verdict was in line with democratic principles and served as a lesson to those who had undermined democracy in 2019.
In contrast, Sharad Pawar’s daughter and Lok Sabha MP, Supriya Sule, criticised the ECI’s decision, denouncing it as an act of “invisible power”. She argued that both the Shiv Sena and the NCP had suffered as a result. “Two parties of Maharashtra, Shiv Sena and NCP, were damaged by doing this. There is invisible power behind the ECI order,” said Sule. She vowed to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court and the public arena, expressing confidence in obtaining justice.
Aaditya Thackeray, son of Uddhav Thackeray and a leader of Shiv Sena (UBT), also condemned the ECI, accusing it of compromising democracy. He lamented that when the Commission validates wrongdoing, it signals the demise of democracy, branding it as “Entirely Compromised (EC)”. “When the election commission itself starts to legitimise theft, you know that democracy is doomed. The election commission has now once again proved to be the fraud that it is, Entirely Compromised (EC). They are now showing everyone that we aren’t a free and fair democracy anymore,” said Aaditya.
Anticipating a challenge in the Supreme Court from Sharad Pawar’s faction, Ajit Pawar’s group has filed a caveat in the Supreme Court. “We want the Supreme Court to hear us as well so that false claims over the party won’t be established,” said Sunil Tatkare, Lok Sabha MP and State president of NCP (Ajit).
A dent on democracy
Meanwhile, constitutional expert Ulhas Bapat has labelled the ECI verdict unconstitutional and a regrettable degeneration of democracy. “There is a clear directive in Article 28(a) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, regarding how to determine the legitimate party. However, the ECI has disregarded this. The ECI has solely considered the majority among MPs, MLAs, and MLCs. This judgment is biased. We’ve recently witnessed similar judgments in the Shiv Sena case, as well as the judgment given by the Assembly Speaker in the Shiv Sena case. This signifies a decline in democracy, and unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that constitutional bodies like the ECI or posts like the speaker are making such judgments,” said Bapat.
Following the ECI order, the verdict in the disqualification case between both factions of the Pawar family is expected by February 15. The Assembly speaker, Rahul Narwekar, has heard both sides. There’s speculation in political circles that Narwekar, who is a BJP MLA and has previously ruled in favour of Eknath Shinde over Uddhav Thackeray in a Shiv Sena MLA disqualification issue, will likely favour Ajit Pawar’s faction as the real NCP but might not disqualify the remaining 12 MLAs of Sharad Pawar’s group.
The true test for both factions of the NCP and Shiv Sena will be the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections later this year. There will be a battle between two alliances: the BJP, Shiv Sena (Shinde), and NCP (Ajit) forming one alliance, while the Congress, Shiv Sena (UBT), and NCP (Sharad) forming another. There’s uncertainty about the inclusion of smaller parties such as the Vanchit Bahujan Aaghadi (VBA)of Prakash Ambedkar, Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), Raju Shetti’s Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, Samajwadi Party, CPI(M), and CPI. Currently, Ambedkar’s VBA is in talks with the INDIA alliance. Reports suggest that Raj Thackeray’s MNS and the BJP are also considering the possibility of an alliance. Whether these alliances materialise or not, the battle between Pawar and Uddhav versus Shinde will be crucial for both sides. The electoral outcomes of these battles will shape State politics for the coming decade.
Political expert Suhas Palshikar said that how Sharad Pawar’s factions interpret the ECI judgement among the people will be crucial for the election’s outcome. “After losing the battle in the Speaker’s court, Uddhav Thackeray reached out to the masses. He held programmes that exposed the loopholes in the Speaker’s judgements. This helped garner sympathy among voters. If [Sharad] Pawar’s faction starts doing the same, it would benefit them. In an alliance with Uddhav Thackeray and the Congress, if Pawar receives sympathy similar to Thackeray’s after the ECI verdict, it would change the scenario of elections, at least in Maharashtra,” said Palshikar.