Maharashtra politics often resembles Shakespearian tragedies, but on Sunday, July 2, the echoes of Julius Caeser suddenly grew loud and brilliant. Having turned on the television to see his nephew, Ajit, and eight others of his party take oath, Sharad Pawar, one assumes, must have muttered “Et tu, Brute?” several times. By joining forces with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), these politicians had stabbed him in the back. As Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief, Pawar had ensured the rise of some of these leaders. He had lifted them from the block level and ushered them into State politics. Their betrayal, expectedly, has dire consequences. For at least another year, Pawar, an 82-year-old veteran politician, will again have to toil night and day. His own nephew has rebelled against him, and this revolt threatens the dogged reputation Pawar has built over the 60-odd years of his storied political career.
After gaining Cabinet berths in the Maharashtra government, Ajit has submitted to the Election Commission (EC) affidavits from 40 NCP MPs and MLAs, who have sworn him their allegiance. On July 5, Ajit announced he was elected NCP president on June 30, but, strangely, on July 3, he told reporters that Sharad Pawar was still the party’s president. Pawar, for his part, has asked the EC to forbid Ajit’s faction from using NCP’s name and symbol.
The discord between uncle and nephew has taken on the shape of an all-out political war. When both sides held meetings in Mumbai on July 5, 32 MLAs and 4 MLCs answered Ajit’s call, while Pawar had only 18 MLAs and 4 MLCs rallying around him. On that day, Ajit spoke his heart. He told members of his party that the decision to form a government with the BJP in November 2019 was Pawar’s. Hours after Ajit was sworn in alongside Devendra Fadnavis, Pawar turned his back on the BJP. Ajit also added that in the last eight years, Pawar had discussed a political alliance with the BJP on several occasions.
Wanting his uncle to bless his future, Ajit suggested that Pawar must take into account his age and retire from politics. Pawar’s daughter, Supriya Sule, though, countered her cousin by saying she will fight to bring Pawar respect. She warned she will travel to all corners of Maharashtra to tell the people the truth. Sule is not the only one raising the stakes. Attacking the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 2, Pawar reminded him that only eight days before the BJP had struck an alliance with some members of the NCP, he had singled them out as “corrupt”.
A tale of two egos
Ajit and three other NCP leaders who have joined him—Praful Patel, Chhagan Bhujbal, Hasan Mushrif—are being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate (ED). While others may have jumped ship to clear their name, Ajit is also driven by ambition. It is public knowledge that he wishes to become the Chief Minister, but he realises, having lived in Pawar’s shadow for more than 20 years, that his uncle stands in the way.
In the 24 years since its inception in 1999, the NCP recorded its best performance in Assembly elections to date in 2004 when it won 71 seats, while the Congress trailed at 69. This was Pawar’s best chance to ensure that Maharashtra had a Chief Minister from the NCP, but after a week of coalition negotiations, Congress’ Vilasrao Deshmukh got the top post and the NCP’s R.R. Patil was sworn in as his deputy. Even then, Ajit enjoyed the support of a majority of the NCP’s MLAs. He believed that Pawar, who was then the Union Agriculture Minister in the UPA government, had cost him his chief ministership. Pawar, in all probability, did not want to give up the control he enjoyed in State politics.
Family dynamics further strained Pawar and Ajit’s relationship. After projecting his nephew as his political heir, Pawar, in 2005, introduced his once-reluctant daughter into politics. As a Rajya Sabha member, Supriya Sule initially kept her distance from State politics, but her later interventions in the NCP’s Maharashtra affairs were all too conspicuous for Ajit to ignore.
In 2009, when the NCP slipped to second position after the Assembly election, Ajit tried hard to become Deputy Chief Minister but Pawar and Praful Patel propped up Chhagan Bhujbal instead. A fuming Ajit retreated from public view and he later admitted that it was during this time that the BJP first approached him with their then-allies, the Shiv Sena, and asked him to break ranks with Pawar. Finally, in 2010, when the Congress brought in Prithviraj Chavan as Chief Minister, replacing Ashok Chavan whose name figured in the Adarsh Housing Society scam, Ajit became his deputy. Despite this crown, however, Ajit’s head lay uneasy. In 2012, he resigned when the BJP alleged that during his tenure as Maharashtra’s Water Resources Minister (1999-2009), he abused his office for financial gain.
In the years that the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP-Shiv Sena government wielded power (2014-2019), Ajit’s involvement in the irrigation scam was investigated by the Anti-Corruption Bureau, and the ED also probed him for money laundering. Once thought of as a “tough” leader, Ajit’s resolve, some suspected, had begun to crack under the pressure that he faced from the investigating agencies. When Pawar was busy breaking the Shiv Sena away from the NDA in 2019, Ajit joined ranks with the BJP and was elected Deputy Chief Minister. That government fell in four days, but even later, when the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) staked claim, Ajit was again made Deputy Chief Minister. He may have rebelled against Pawar, but NCP MLAs still wanted him to lead the party in government.
In 2022, when Eknath Shinde split the Shiv Sena and caused the fall of the MVA government, Ajit was made Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly as the NCP had the most number of seats among the opposition parties. In time, however, Ajit felt sidelined. Sule, he alleged, had begun to play a bigger role in the party’s Maharashtra matters with the help of Jayant Patil, NCP State president. Convinced that Pawar’s daughter would ultimately inherit his party, Ajit jumped ship the minute NCP leaders like Patel, Bhujbal and Dilip Walse-Patil announced that they, too, were on board with him.
Pragmatism guided these politicians. After Pawar, it is Ajit, not Sule, who is practiced at electoral politicking. He knows the grassroots well enough to assure these leaders votes. In the pecking order of the NCP, he has always ranked second. Supporting Ajit, instead of Sule, is a way for these party stalwarts to secure their own political future. Unlike 2019, when Pawar enjoyed the trust of a majority of his MLAs, he is today finding it hard to force party members to toe his political line. Afraid that the BJP will again emerge victor in the 2024 State election, many NCP MLAs want to be guaranteed power.
- When both sides held meetings in Mumbai on July 5, 32 MLAs and 4 MLCs answered Ajit’s call, while Pawar had only 18 MLAs and 4 MLCs rallying around him.
- Ajit and three other NCP leaders who have joined him—Praful Patel, Chhagan Bhujbal, Hasan Mushrif—are being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
- It is public knowledge that Ajit wishes to become the Chief Minister, but he realises, having lived in Pawar’s shadow for more than 20 years, that his uncle stands in the way.
- Attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 2, Pawar reminded him that only eight days before the BJP had struck an alliance with some members of the NCP, he had singled them out as “corrupt”.
Will Sharad Pawar rise again?
With entrenched NCP leaders having turned on him, Pawar is again betting on newcomers. During a press conference held shortly after news of Ajit’s revolt went viral, Pawar told reporters, “All these leaders [who have joined Ajit] were young when I first met them. I made them leaders. This will happen again. You will now see a new NCP team.” With both general and State elections scheduled to be held in 2024, the NCP is going to need many hands on deck, but for Pawar, finding people has never been difficult. Ever since the 1980s, his experiment of forming new electoral teams has often succeeded.
Having broken away from the Congress with Karnataka Chief Minister D. Devaraj Urs in 1979, Pawar had helped their Indian National Congress (Urs) win 47 seats in the 1980 Assembly election. After being elected president of the party in October 1981, he changed its name to the Indian Congress (Socialist), and even though a majority of his MLAs had deserted him by then, the IC(S) won 54 seats in the 1985 State election. This cycle of events repeated itself between 2014 and 2019. Of the 41 MLAs elected on the NCP ticket in 2014, 10 switched their allegiance to either the Shiv Sena or the BJP, but in 2019, the party won 54 seats.
Senior political observer Padmabhushan Deshpande feels writing off Sharad Pawar would be a mistake. He says, “Even today, he is the most influential leader in Maharashtra. He would do everything possible to turn his problems into opportunities. We will see the results in next year’s assembly elections.” Pawar, we see, is already preparing himself for the possibility that he might have to forgo the name and symbol of his party to members of his nephew’s camp. He recently said, “I have fought elections under names and symbols of four parties. People have stood by me because they don’t look for symbols. They see the person who will protect their interests […] I never go to court. I go to the people. I know they are with me.”
Sule confesses she still loves Ajit, but for the first time, her family is divided before an election. It is impossible for either side to avoid the rancour. Sule, for instance, contests from the Baramati Lok Sabha seat, but Baramati is, also, Ajit’s assembly constituency. Until now, Sule has benefited from Ajit’s sizeable Baramati margin, but now that her cousin has joined hands with the BJP, their familial tensions threaten to have grave political consequences.
Trouble at the top
At the State level, the BJP must be heaving sighs of relief. With Eknath Shinde already having split Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena last year, Ajit’s departure is further expected to weaken the MVA. Had he stayed, however, Ajit might have meddled in seat-sharing talks and added to the alliance’s existing headaches. Moreover, by negotiating with the BJP, he had compromised the opposition in the Assembly. With him gone, the MVA has its task cut out. It is free to launch an all-out attack against the BJP. The Karnataka Assembly election results proved that aggression benefits opposition parties. The MVA can now seize the day.
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For Eknath Shinde and his Shiv Sena MLAs, Ajit Pawar’s disloyalty does not bode well. Shinde’s party is battling public disapproval, and a case pending before the Assembly Speaker could disqualify him and several of the MLAs who support him. If, for the BJP, Shinde ever feels like excess baggage, they now have an option in Ajit.
Nationally, Sharad Pawar had, until now, played a key role in uniting opposition parties. He had the ear of Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and other senior leaders, but with his own party now broken, that national alliance has begun to seem brittle. After being sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister, Ajit, in his first press conference, said, “The country has seen remarkable progress and stability under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi”. Looking at how chaotic the opposition’s arithmetic suddenly appears, Ajit’s use of the word ‘stability’ has taken on new meaning.
Ever since Maharashtra last went to the polls in 2019, the State has seen three different sets of Chief Ministers and Deputy Chief Ministers take oath. The BJP, Shiv Sena and the NCP have all collaborated with their erstwhile competitors. These permutations are not expected to stop anytime soon. This October, the State will witness municipal and local body elections, in April 2024 the Lok Sabha election, and in October the Assembly election. After having been betrayed by those whom they had voted for, the people of the State can, perhaps, only hope their leaders will stop betraying one another.