Who and what are behind Ajit Pawar's new rebellion?

Nationalist Congress Party loyalists call it a bigger betrayal than Shinde’s; many seek to join the Indian National Congress

Ajit Pawar takes oath as deputy chief minister of Maharashtra at Raj Bhavan, Sunday 2 July 2023
Ajit Pawar takes oath as deputy chief minister of Maharashtra at Raj Bhavan, Sunday 2 July 2023

Sujata Anandan

For the second time in less than five years, Ajit Pawar seems to have taken everybody, including his uncle Sharad Pawar, by surprise.

But as he was sworn in as deputy chief minister of Maharashtra for the second time in a saffron government, even Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) loyalists were flummoxed. (Indeed, at seven times overall in the deputy’s chair, he is almost making a career of that alone.)

They know Ajit as an extremely power-hungry man who has been chafing at the bit to become the chief minister of Maharashtra. Of the parties within the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), the NCP was best placed to win the maximum number of seats in the next assembly election.

Thus the post would have automatically gone to the NCP and Ajit would have become chief minister. So why now become a second deputy, where he has to defer to both Eknath Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis?

Then again, although Sharad Pawar has issued a brief statement that he had no clue what his nephew was planning, there are not many who buy that statement. For, along with Ajit are people like Chhagan Bhujbal, Dilip Walse-Patil, Hasan Mushrif and others who supposedly could not stand Ajit Pawar and were Sharad Pawar loyalists.

Ditto Praful Patel, who seemed to have been orchestrating the entire crossover and was just made the working president of the NCP along with Supriya Sule, Sharad Pawar’s daughter, and who was expected to mentor her to eventually take over as party president.

So while NCP loyalists are not openly voicing their doubts, there seems to be a suspicion running through them that it is actually their own party president who may have orchestrated the break-up. If so, why?

With Sharad Pawar, you can never be sure. However, the hypothesis is that for the NCP, it is an opportunity to access files within the government and, like Ajit had managed as Fadnavis’s 80-hour deputy in 2019, make short shrift of the cases against them, including that against Mushrif, who has of late been under tremendous pressure from the BJP and was on the verge of arrest. He too has now been sworn in as a minister.

For the BJP, the advantage is the winning edge of the NCP men now on its turf, as Eknath Shinde and his 40 MLAs were simply not making the cut. There were already rumblings of discontent between the Shinde faction and Fadnavis, as manifest in the recent advertisements published by Shinde which lauded Modi and sidelined Fadnavis. But then, the BJP might have to contend with the fact that all the NCP men are heavyweights with very good relations with the bureaucracy.

This was a problem that even the Congress had had to face in past governments when the NCP bagged all the significant departments that helped them to connect with the masses, while the Congress was left with just the chief minister's office and, at best, the revenue department.

Now that is very likely to cause unrest in the Shinde ranks, which were already upset that their people were not being inducted into the cabinet or adjusted into positions in the various state corporations either. Amid rumours that at least five close supporters of Shinde would be dropped on charges of corruption, it is unlikely that these men would now be satisfied with crumbs. They may instead seek a return to the mother party and make tracks towards Matoshree again.

While Ajit has enough MLAs with him to sustain the government even if Shinde’s MLAs quit, the pre-eminence of the NCP men who have dealt with and nurtured the bureaucracy for more than 15 years in the past cannot be a comfort to either Shinde or Fadnavis. As chief minister, Fadnavis could have exerted his supremacy over Ajit; as one of two equals, he might not have a very happy position within the government.

Outside the government, NCP loyalists are of the view that if this rebellion does not have the sanction of Sharad Pawar, they are unlikely to continue with the party beyond a week or two. Many of them with Muslim-majority and marginal constituencies, who have been bitterly opposing Praful Patel’s moves to persuade Pawar to join up with the BJP, are now saying they would look to rejoin the Indian National Congress.

They had split with the INC only because within the Congress, they had gained much from Pawar; but in the interest of their future careers, they cannot afford to even flirt with the BJP. With the INC’s graph rising again, they feel they would have better opportunities within a secular front rather than with a rump of the NCP. 

However, it is early hours yet. Many still believe that there is a larger game afoot. They would prefer to wait and see which way the dice falls before taking a final decision.

As unsure as any, one of these men told National Herald, “If this rebellion is genuine and not part of some elaborate game, then all I can say is that the betrayal by these NCP men is worse than Shinde’s betrayal of Uddhav Thackeray."

That is because more than half the MLAs with Ajit today—note that he could gather not more than a dozen for his swearing in ceremony in November 2019—owe everything they have today to Sharad Pawar, and not Ajit. That goes for Ajit too. “At least Shinde had his own standing and base in Thane, independent of Uddhav Thackeray. Even Ajit would not have come this far without his uncle,” this NCP member said.

But now, clearly Ajit believes he has enough support at the grassroots to win elections without his uncle’s blessings. His cousin Supriya might not be as comfortably placed, both in the party and in the constituency, and many believe this is a pre-emptive strike to prevent her from putting down roots within the party.

As far as Sharad Pawar goes, with his role in this rebellion still unclear, he seems to be losing both party and family. So will he too merge back with the INC again, given that the Maharashtra Congress has no one to hold a candle to him and given that former party president Sonia Gandhi depends upon him to win elections in the state?

If that happens, it could be a win-win situation for both Congress parties as well as the MVA—and the Shinde–Fadnavis–Ajit Pawar trio will then have an uphill task at the next elections.

So who has queered whose pitch ? Only time will tell.

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