A tale of two rebellions in Maharashtra

Ajit Pawar’s switch to the BJP with a bunch of Sharad Pawar loyalists was too smooth to be true. And Sharad Pawar calmly wishing the rebels well does prompt one to look beyond the visible

(L-R) Ajit Pawar, Supriya Sule and Sharad Pawar at a party event in Pune, Oct. 2018 (Photo: Getty Images)
(L-R) Ajit Pawar, Supriya Sule and Sharad Pawar at a party event in Pune, Oct. 2018 (Photo: Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

Two rebellions in Maharashtra within a year and note the stark differences.

Ajit Pawar did not need to ferry his MLAs to Bangalore or Guwahati to keep them safe, unlike when Eknath Shinde rebelled against Uddhav Thackeray.

No allegations of money changing hands. The swearing in was accomplished with far less ado than that of Shinde and his men. No Speaker or party whip was called in for a disqualification of the MLAs.

And Sharad Pawar, the leader of the party, who should have felt as humiliated as Uddhav was, if not more, wished the rebels well and said he would not undertake a legal battle with his nephew—in stark contrast to what he had advised Uddhav Thackeray to do last year.

But what he said minutes after the split is very revealing. “Some people have undertaken the task to clean up Maharashtra and my party. (Narendra) Modi had described our party as the most corrupt party and said some action will be taken. So, the action has been taken now. I wish them well.”

One of the ‘googlies’ he has been bowling Devendra Fadnavis of late? And who is ‘them’? The corrupt NCP men or the BJP?

Pawar has been in a war of words with Fadnavis over the past week and Fadnavis claims he has answered every googly with a sixer. But one cannot yet say if this split is the biggest hits of them all or Pawar’s latest googly has just been bowled. For most names in Ajit’s ranks are close supporters of his uncle, not of Ajit. And every one of them has a serious corruption charge against himself. Hence Pawar’s comment that some people are now cleaning up Maharashtra.

He will go to the next polls with squeaky clean candidates and the BJP will have no cause to complain as all the corrupt men would be in their party!

And go to polls he will. Not fight a legal battle with his nephew over ownership of the party. For unlike with the Shiv Sena, there was never any dispute about who owned the NCP. Pawar set it up from the scratch, built it up as a national party (though it recently lost that status) and spread its tentacles from west to south to east and north-east, and even ventured north and extreme north.

That was all because of Sharad Pawar’s formidable networking skills with other Opposition parties and his reputation as a farmers’ leader, which he put to good use as Union agriculture minister in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Ajit, on the other hand, is culturally handicapped, having to limit his canvas to the state of Maharashtra. Even within Maharashtra, the NCP’S home turf is restricted to just western Maharashtra—Ajit does not even have a support base in all the districts. If the MLAs with him now are hoping to re-win their constituencies, they will need more than just Ajit’s support for the same.

Moreover, every NCP seat is on a secular ticket. Individual charisma can only go thus far at the grassroots as was obvious when Udayan Raje Bhosale, the 14th descendant of Shivaji, quit after winning as an NCP candidate in the 2019 Lok Sabha and joined the BJP.

Less than three months later, he lost the by-poll to a little known NCP candidate. People clearly chose Sharad Pawar over a Maratha royal.

With more than just one such example to write home about, Pawar knows he gets best results while fighting with his back to the wall. The BJP tends to dismiss him as an old man past his prime, incapable of further achievements, but he has proved them wrong on at least three occasions since 2018.

After the BJP stole his partymen, Pawar fought back and rose like a phoenix from the ashes. The saffron party unleashed ED (Enforcement Directorate) on him, but chickened out when Pawar took them head-on. And finally, after the 2019 assembly elections when he pulled off an unlikely alliance between the Congress and the Shiv Sena and enabled Uddhav Thackeray to run one of the best administrations of Maharashtra so far.

Ajit may have taken a calculated risk but he has much to lose as well. In the leadership vacuum in the party, space has now been created for his cousin Supriya Sule, and Pawar will leave no stone unturned to smoothen her way into taking over the party.

Those Pawar supporters now with Ajit are said to like Supriya even less than they do Ajit, but if they will be wishing to return to the NCP fold in near future, they may have no choice but to accept her leadership.

So, the question in most minds now is: who has played whom? Has Sharad Pawar played the BJP (if so, why has the BJP allowed this, unless it is to reduce the importance of Fadnavis given that he is in conflict with most state and national BJP leaders)? Or has Ajit Pawar played his uncle (in which case he may have left himself doubly vulnerable)?

Or has Pawar senior played his nephew who has been a thorn in his uncle’s side for long? This way Pawar would have cleared the decks for his daughter Supriya and great-nephew Rohit Pawar, who is a direct rival to Ajit’s son Parth Pawar?

Pawar is a master of the game and anyone who dismisses him as inconsequential has so far had to eat crow. As he holds a meeting with his men on Monday and reveals his future moves, the pawns in the game and the king or queen might just become visible.


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