Ajit’s Switch to BJP for No.2 Post, Sharad's Waiting Game: Unanswered Questions in Maha Pawar Struggle

File photo of NCP chief Sharad Pawar with nephew Ajit Pawar. (PTI)

File photo of NCP chief Sharad Pawar with nephew Ajit Pawar. (PTI)

Though these and many other intriguing questions will be answered only as events shape up gradually before the crucial floor test, Ajit Pawar’s confidantes claim he has played his cards well.

Dhaval Kulkarni
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He is known for being brash and petulant, and often lets impulses get the better of his good sense. But, those who know Ajit Anantrao Pawar claim that his apparent rebellion against the NCP, and uncle and party supremo Sharad Pawar seems to be well-planned and scripted.

In an early morning coup on Saturday, Ajit was sworn in as the deputy to BJP Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. This came just after the revocation of President's Rule in Maharashtra at dawn.

Just a day ago, the NCP and the Congress had almost sealed a pact to join hands with erstwhile ideological foe, the Shiv Sena, with Sharad Pawar even pitching Sena president Uddhav Thackeray as the chief ministerial nominee. This marked a major crossing of the Rubicon for the Shiv Sena, which burnt its bridges with three-decade old ally, the BJP, and saw a member of its first family being named for a public office, in a break from convention where the Thackerays have stayed away from holding these positions of power.

Many in the early hours on Saturday thought the operations had the blessings of Pawar Senior. The 79-year-old, however, tried to nip these speculations by marshalling his legislators and party leaders, creating the impression that Ajit was increasingly isolated.

But many questions remain unanswered.

For one, why would Ajit hop over to the BJP when he was likely to get the same position in a Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP dispensation? Plus, why did Pawar, who is known for his political U-turns, drag his feet on crucial issues like granting the letter of support to the Shiv Sena, and make statements that added to the confusion while the three parties were trying to hammer out a compromise?

Moreover, why did the NCP set into motion a process that led to President's Rule being imposed in Maharashtra? Is it a mere coincidence that if the Shiv Sena's most audacious bid for power falls through, leading to an obvious loss of face, the NCP and the BJP stand to gain the most due to overlapping areas of influence? The Congress, which gradually came around to joining hands with the Sena, and stands to lose if this plan falls through, also competes with the NCP in parts of the state.

Though these and many other intriguing questions will be answered only as events shape up gradually before the crucial floor test, Ajit's confidantes claim he has played his cards well. They point out that even if he became the deputy chief minister in the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress regime, keeping these three disparate parties, with competing interests together was not easy. This would have left Ajit with truncated authority.

Even if Ajit's bid is defeated, it will insulate him from the BJP making allegations of alleged corruption in the irrigation department, which he once led. Before Ajit's apparent palace coup, it was said that a section of NCP leaders who feared action by central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) were eager to break bread with the BJP.

Unlike his uncle, who is known for his tough-to-understand, cloak-and-dagger politics that has crystalized perceptions about him despite his over five-decade stint in politics, Ajit is upfront in a manner bordering on arrogance and brusqueness. While Pawar has a huge network of friends, and associates and can preserve relationships, Ajit's mannerisms at times, estrange people.

Ajit is the son of Pawar's elder brother Anantrao. After completing his matriculation, Anantrao secured admission to the reputed Fergusson College in Pune, where he had a showdown with the principal on the very first day, leading to his expulsion. This did not go down well with his parents Govindrao, called Aaba, at home, and mother Sharadabai (or Bai as she was referred to by her children). Sharadabai was a disciplinarian and the family matriarch, and soon, Anantrao had to leave home. He came to Mumbai to work as an assistant cinematographer with the legendary V Shantaram, filming masterpieces like Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje and Amar Bhupali. However, a family reconcilement led to him returning home to Baramati, where he took charge of the family's farms.

Ajit was formally launched into politics in the early 1980s as the director of a co-operative sugar mill by his uncle. Later, he became the director of the Pune District Central Co-operative Bank. Ajit was later elected to the Lok Sabha from Baramati, but soon made way for Pawar when he became the defence minister in PV Narasimha Rao cabinet. Elected to the Maharashtra Assembly from the family pocket borough of Baramati, which he continues to represent, Ajit was seen as his uncle's political heir.

Though he was a junior minister in cabinets led by chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik and later uncle Sharad Pawar, his career flourished after the newly formed NCP allied with the Congress to come to power in Maharashtra.

In 2004, the NCP secured 71 seats, two more than the Congress. While a large-section of the party wanted to stake claim for the chief minister's post, Pawar rather inexplicably allowed his ally to lead the government. This is attributed to an attempt to cut his nephew, whose ambition for the top post was obvious, and other contenders, to size.

In 2010, when the Congress dispensed with chief minister Ashok Chavan after allegations in the Adarsh housing society case, Ajit forced his uncle and the NCP to replace then deputy chief minister Chhagan Bhujbal, with him. This four-year stint proved to be controversial for Ajit due to the alleged irrigation scam and his own imperious statements, including one where he asked if one should urinate in an empty dam to give water to protesting farmers.

The balance of power in the Pawar family was precarious, yet well-defined. While Ajit would handle the party in Maharashtra, Pawar Sr., whose prime ministerial ambitions were known, would focus on Delhi. However, the entry of Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule into the arena muddied waters. The defeat of Pawar's son Parth from the Maval Lok Sabha seat in 2019, and the victory of Rohit, the grandson of Pawar's other brother Appasaheb, in the state assembly polls from Karjat-Jamkhed complicated matters further.

Rohit defeated then BJP minister Ram Shinde from the constituency located in neighbouring Ahmednagar district in a tough battle where he had to overcome the baggage of being an ‘outsider’. He was seen as more rooted than introvert Parth, who is more at ease with English than Marathi. Reports suggested Rohit, a Zilla Parishad member from Pune, was being personally groomed by the NCP chief. It must be noted that while Ajit was at the centre of the news cycle on Saturday, Parth was at his side.

Though Pawar, a cancer survivor, moved across the state to campaign for the party in the assembly elections, this was attributed to latent anger against leaders like Ajit for their perceived arrogance while being in power. When the ED named Pawar in an alleged money laundering case in September, Ajit, quite inexplicably, resigned as a legislator. The two are also said to have clashed in the distribution of tickets in the Maharashtra assembly elections.

As Pawar seeks to keep his flock together and outfox his nephew, questions about the culpability of the party in Ajit's dalliance with the BJP will be answered only during the floor test in the Assembly.

BJP leaders claim Pawar Senior is on board, with daughter Supriya likely to be inducted into the Union Cabinet at a later date, something that cannot be independently verified at this point. The BJP central leadership would not have launched the morning coup without the strategy to take it to the logical end, these leaders state.

They also claim that Pawar, who has been seen as a permanent prime minister-in-waiting, may also be put up as a consensus candidate for the president's post, considering his long innings in politics. Much like Janata Dal (Secular) patriarch and former PM HD Deve Gowda, who initially expressed anger at son HD Kumaraswamy allying with the BJP in 2006, but came around later.

When the political stalemate in Maharashtra, caused by the Shiv Sena claiming that the BJP was refusing to honour their pact of having a rotational CM post, persisted, senior BJP leaders were perplexed at the seeming inaction of the central leadership. These leaders said Ajit's surprise moves showed they had a Plan B all along to retain power in a state like Maharashtra, which has a strong industrial and urban base. They added that till the last minute, they had tried to take the defiant Shiv Sena along, before showing their hand.

However, NCP leaders bristle at the suggestion that the Pawar family estrangement may have been play-acted. Pawar, who has pitted himself against his nephew, has a lot at stake here, they point out.

But, leaders across party lines agree that the episode has birthed many unanswered questions, of which some are elephants in the room: Was Pawar Senior aware of his nephew's moves and did he try to stop Ajit from breaking the party? Has Ajit acted in his trademark style, reacted to an impulse, like when he resigned as the deputy chief minister after being named in the alleged irrigation scam, but revoked it weeks later?

This is a question that only the coming days can answer.

(The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of 'The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas’ published by Penguin EBury Press. Views are personal)

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