Maharashtra saga: Sharad Pawar takes lessons from his own playbook, uses pan-state grip to make nephew Ajit fall in line
The latest bid was, by far, one of the most serious attempts by Ajit to come out of the shadow of Sharad Pawar and wrest control of the NCP. But the attempt failed for the same reasons which have existed for the past two decades since the formation of Pawar’s regional outfit, with the addition of some more.
In a political career spanning over five decades, Pawar has engineered splits in political parties, including his own. He has lived through defections.
Ajit has always wanted to break free from the Congress shadow, while Pawar senior, given his national ambitions, has not
Pawar senior still commands way more respect from his partymen than Ajit dada does, and what is more, the young old man holds an iron grip over his party's rank
A split in political families or a split in political parties — neither of the two are new for Sharad Pawar.
In a political career spanning over five decades, Pawar has engineered splits in political parties, including his own. He has lived through defections. And has split families in the past – like that of Gopinath Munde – to keep a stranglehold on Mantralaya and kept his supporters and rivals guessing. Ambitions are a part of a political life; deceit to acquire power too – he knows it and has seen it all.
What was new this time around was that the lessons from his playbook came visiting him – a split in his close-knit family and a political camp which was stopping him from forming a government in Maharashtra.
Both attempts failed miserably on Tuesday, as the 80-year-old patriarch of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) craftily managed to douse the fire raging in his backyard, bringing, in its wake, to the ground the wily machinations of chief minister (now ousted) Devendra Fadnavis and the BJP’s reigning duo of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, paving the way for the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition to assume power in Maharashtra.
With that, for the umpteenth time in three decades, Pawar, the uncle, prevailed over his nephew Ajit Pawar, and tactfully made him fall in line. In his toughest challenge yet, the 80-year-old managed to salvage – for now – his party and family, nipping a crisis, scripted by his blood relation, in the bud.
In the past twenty years, Ajit Pawar has raised a rebellion, thrown a tantrum, and even acted in a way that showed him as a sulking leader, but had never taken out the daggers against his uncle.
In that sense, the Saturday midnight coup – in which Fadnavis took oath as chief minister with Ajit Pawar as his deputy – was one heck of an attempt to deny Sharad Pawar a shot at regaining Mumbai. By seeking to take control of the NCP legislature party, Ajit posed a direct challenge to his uncle’s political credibility and writ over the party.
Supriya Sule's prescient message that morning, (‘a split in the party and family’) summed up the mood, but for Sharad the question of the family split wasn’t all that important – he would deal with it later. The priority was to control the political damage and possibly reverse it.
By late afternoon, just before the NCP legislature party was to meet, he sent his two emissaries to begin a dialogue with Ajit, stem defections, and bring back at least a dozen MLAs. Numbers in-tact, he then removed Ajit from the legislature party leadership’s post, a move that would eventually make Fadnavis’ floor test difficult. He kept his allies in the loop all this while.
For two days, while the BJP took a great risk of banking upon the nephew, the uncle banked upon his own experience and close aides to bring back the bird gone astray.
"I’ve seen it before," Pawar said Saturday at a joint press conference with Uddhav Thackeray, who looked stressed and worried. It was a calm Pawar who said, "There is no cause for worry."
It is known within the political circles in Maharashtra, particularly within the NCP, that Ajit is not on the same page as his uncle on the issues of political leanings. Ajit has always wanted to break free from the Congress shadow, while Pawar senior, given his national ambitions, has not. But the differences and bickering within the first family of Baramati spilled out in the open this time.
Pawar probably knew of his nephew's discomfiture with the three-party coalition, but may not have gauged his intentions to revolt and cross over to the BJP in the manner he did. "We never expected this from Ajit Pawar," he had said during the press conference on Saturday.
The latest bid was, by far, one of the most serious attempts by Ajit to come out of the shadow of his uncle and wrest control of the NCP. But the attempt failed for the same reasons which have existed for the past two decades since the formation of Pawar’s regional outfit, with the addition of some more.
One, Ajit has not grown in stature — politically and socially — and does not have a pan-state following. He has no national aspiration like his cousin or uncle. To that extent his grievance that his uncle sacrifices the party's regional and provincial interests for his national ambitions is not unfounded. Sharad's outfit has no pan-state grip, but his stature does — on the state and beyond — something that his nephew failed to take into account before walking into the BJP trap.
Secondly, the Baramati Empire is too huge and powerful to give up. In the end, economic interests will take precedence over political necessities.
Thirdly, Ajit's close aides and new supporters in the party did not dare to take on senior Pawar given the patriarch’s ability to hit back harder.
Pawar senior still commands way more respect from his partymen than Ajit dada does, and what is more, the young old man holds an iron grip over his party’s rank and file, and has a better view of Maharashtra’s complex and vast political turf. For Ajit, this episode was a major loss of face.
Sharad remained unaffected even when some of his close aides deserted the party ahead of the Maharashtra Assembly elections in October this year. He made sure most of them lost, including the Satara descendent of Chhattrapati Shivaji, Udayan Raje Bhonsle. Bhonsle, now a BJP candidate, lost the Lok Sabha bypolls to NCP's Shrinivas Patil, an 80-year-old schoolmate of Pawar — which has become a political fable of 2019. After the election results, the NCP workers sent Bhonsle's photos to their MLAs and leaders as a reminder to what their fate could be should they decide to desert the party or Pawar senior.
In 1991, Sharad brought in Chhagan Bhujbal, from the Shiv Sena when Bhujbal was in his prime and someone who could have catapulted the Shiv Sena on to the Mumbai throne. In doing so, Pawar senior took care that his personal equations with Sena supremo remained unaffected and friendly. Pawar can separate the family from politics, a craft others find hard to imbibe.
When Bhujbal left the Sena with 20 MLAs, his faction was called Sena-B, which also split within minutes of splitting from the original Sena (Sena-A) with six MLAs deciding to return to the original party, and Bhujbal and eleven MLAs decided to merge into the Congress, then led by Pawar. It is ironical, thus, that Sharad Pawar is happy doing business today with the same Sena that he had managed to split.
Where does the failed midnight coup leave Devendra Fadnavis, whose political machinations over the last few months, could be termed as no less than a misadventure? He weaved a pre-poll alliance with Sena when most of his state colleagues reportedly did not want it. He made about 30 Congress and NCP leaders defect to his party and gave them tickets in Assembly elections disappointing the BJP loyalists. And yet his party’s tally fell from 122 in 2014 to 105 in 2019, leaving much room for the party’s oldest ally, Shiv Sena, to bargain harder and eventually exit the NDA fold.
Going by the past experiences and fate that many BJP stalwarts have faced, Fadnavis can only expect some hard questions from within the larger Sangh Parivar.
The author is an independent journalist based out of Nagpur and a roving reporter for the People’s Archive of Rural India
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