In a surprise move, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra Ajit Pawar today sent his resignation to the Chief Minister, following allegations that he was involved in a multi-crore irrigation scam, and said he was willing to face a probe in connection with the case.
“I have sent my resignation to the Chief Minister’s office and it is up to him to decide whether to accept it or not,” he told reporters in Mumbai today.
While the minister was quick to deny that his resignation would affect the alliance between the NCP and Congress in the state, initial reactions suggested NCP MLAs had already begun to demand that the two parties part ways.
Pawar’s resignation over the irrigation scam came as a huge surprise, especially given his standing in the Maharashtra government and in the Congress-NCP alliance.
If Sharad Pawar’s nephew has not rebelled so far—unlike Raj Thackeray in the other family—it is only because Ajitdada has enjoyed the spoils of power for quite some time now and has had his way all through, notwithstanding his uncle’s displeasure.
There are strong similarities between Ajit Pawar and Raj Thackeray, 43, both of whom are young, ambitious and aggressive. Equally, there are similarities between the suave, soft-spoken and otherwise direction-less Supriya Sule, daughter of Sharad Pawar, and Uddhav Thackeray, son of Bal Thackeray.
In October 2009, the uncle-nephew relationship in the NCP was clearly strained when Ajit displayed a fierce determination to become deputy chief minister of Maharashtra after the assembly polls but lost out to incumbent Chhagan Bhujbal. Like a child throwing a tantrum, Ajit had staked his claim to the post with the support of his own young brigade within the NCP.
Although he lost that round, he got his chance a year later when the Congress replaced Ashok Chavan—tainted by the Adarsh Housing scam—with Prithviraj Chavan and the NCP decided to ask Chhagan Bhujbal to step down in favour of Ajit.
In fact, the Congress was in favour of retaining Bhujbal to balance the Maratha-OBC caste equation, but Ajit had to be placated. He had already managed to successfully sideline top contenders for the post such as veteran NCP leader Vijaysinh Mohite Patil and senior Pawar’s favourites, Dilip Walse-Patil and Jayant Patil, who are Ajit’s peers.
The uncle-nephew NCP pair had become a talking point when, during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, Ajit had refused to campaign for Congress’ sitting MP Suresh Kalmadi, although the Congress-NCP had a poll alliance. The party cadre was completely confused till Sharad Pawar held a late night meeting in April 2009 and admonished the cadre in Pune, directing them to honour his word of support to Kalmadi.
Strong-headed and ultra-ambitious like Raj Thackeray, Ajit Pawar has always been perceived as someone who is “arrogant”.
He is admired for being purposeful – especially when it comes to infrastructure projects under the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) which he controls. The same is not true with the irrigation projects under the Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation, of which he was the minister and which were left in a mess.
Ajit’s supporters admire him for his work at PCMC, as also his character of being upfront and straightforward. Ask them about Dada—as Ajit is known to his supporters—and the response typically is: “He does not make false promises and keep people hanging hopefully. If he promises something he keeps his word. If he can’t make a promise, he makes it clear then and there that it can’t be done.”
Unlike Raj Thackeray, who is an excellent orator like his uncle Balasaheb, Ajit lacks finesse in speech or oratory. He acknowledges that those who call him “arrogant” misunderstand his frankness and candid nature. “I don’t rouse false hopes in people or party workers and come straight to the point. This is sometimes seen as arrogance,” is how he has responded to the charge.
In previous years, the senior Pawar would attribute his nephew’s behaviour to “the passion of young blood”. In a recent TV interview to Star Mazha, the senior Pawar advised Ajit to “improve his reading and his style of speech and dialogue with the people”. Ajit responded by stating that he would accept his uncle’s advice sagely, and rejected the possibility of ever rebelling against him.
Ajit Pawar learnt to play politics as a brash youngster in Baramati, in the shadow of his uncle who was then at his peak as chief minister. People of Baramati actually remember seeing him sitting on the “katta” with friends outside the Baramati Market Yard. The taluka town’s municipal council, which had its factions, was among his first playgrounds as a young adult.
In March 1990, after Sharad Pawar became Maharashtra CM for the third time, it was Ajit, at the tender age of 32, who was elected to the Lok Sabha from Baramati in the 1991 polls. “I remember seeing him during those days – he was completely clueless about what it meant to be a member of Parliament,” says a senior scribe.
Over the years, he led the Pune District Central Cooperative Bank for 16 years and as minister/minister-of-state, has also held various portfolios in agriculture, power, irrigation, rural development, planning and finance.
As Ajit began to experience the fruits of power and assert himself, those close to the senior Pawar expressed their unhappiness and sometimes felt slighted. In Baramati, Ajit’s meddling led to the sensational defeat of the Pawar panel in the Malegaon Cooperative Sugar Factory in the 1990s by a much-respected contemporary of Pawar senior, Chandraanna Taware. Tawre described Ajit as “rude and egoistic”.
Years later, it was Sharad Pawar’s one-time confidant, Suresh Kalmadi, who fell out with the Pawars over Ajit’s continuing elevation.
After Baramati, the PCMC near Pune became the centre of Ajit-dada’s political universe and for at least two decades now it has been firmly under his solitary grip.
Unlike his uncle who plays cut-throat politics silently while projecting his image as a progressive leader, Ajit has no such sophistication. He is identified very closely with the politically-assertive Maratha lobby and the builder-politician nexus and shows no interest in arts, culture or intellectual debates, and discussions on Dalits or women’s empowerment issues.
How this resignation plays out in Maharashtra’s second political family is a theatre we will certainly follow.