It's game, set and match to Ajit Pawar's NCP in Maharashtra cabinet reshuffle

Ajit Pawar's men renew their hold on the Maharashtra government, while the Shinde faction returns to square one

Maharashtra's new deputy CM Ajit Pawar's supporters during the inauguration of the new party office near Mantralaya in Mumbai, Maharashtra, on 4 July (photo: Getty Images)
Maharashtra's new deputy CM Ajit Pawar's supporters during the inauguration of the new party office near Mantralaya in Mumbai, Maharashtra, on 4 July (photo: Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

'The more things change, the more they remain the same.' 

Whatever the Shinde faction of the Shiv Sena may have accused Uddhav Thackeray of—that he had betrayed Hindutva because of his alliance with the secular Indian National Congress (INC) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)—the real reason (apart from pressure from the Enforcement Directorate) was that they could not stand Ajit Pawar.

As deputy chief minister and finance minister, Ajit Pawar extended funds only to constituencies belonging to NCP MLAs. Shiv Sena MLAs found that none of the development projects in their constituencies were funded, while in the same district, in neighbouring constituencies, the NCP ruled the roost. Slowly, Pawar was putting the Shiv Sainiks out of business, and Uddhav Thackeray as chief minister could do not a thing about it, they had alleged.

And now again, history seems set to repeat itself. After a 12-day wrangle, Ajit Pawar on Friday, July 14, has managed to pull off the seemingly impossible. He has wrested the finance and planning departments away from his co-deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis again, bringing the other MLAs back to square one.

Indeed, the handful of NCP ministers in the cabinet have managed to retain most of their old departments, all crucial for connecting with the masses:

  • Cooperatives—which the BJP is trying hard to get a hold of, considering it continues to be the backbone of both the INC and the NCP in the state

  • Food & Civil Supplies—just handed over to Chhagan Bhujbal

  • the Agriculture, Food & Drug administration

  • Women & Child Welfare—held by the Congress in the Maha Vikas Aghadi

  • Sports and Youth Affairs

  • Medical and Technical Education...

All the departments, then, that aid the personal touch, the popular connect and help leaders to put down deep roots in the state.

Fadnavis, though, had managed to retain home affairs as well as law and order. Shinde himself continues to hold general administration and urban development, a department crucial to him personally and to his party in general.

Predictably, the Shiv Sena (UBT) has jumped into the fray too, pointing out that the Shinde faction has been had, and has diluted its own raison d’ètre in government. Allying with the NCP has not only hurt the credibility of their anti-Hindutva campaign, but once again left them facing the same danger—of being written out of their constituencies at the next elections, because it is unlikely that Shinde or Fadnavis will be able to persuade Ajit Pawar to conduct himself differently with regard to fund distribution.

Friday’s portfolio allocations also come as a setback to Fadnavis personally, who had to give up a crucial department to keep the NCP happy within the government. And what goes for Shinde’s MLAs might well be applicable even to BJP MLAs from now on. At least earlier they were in the opposition and could fall back on the excuse that they would only be able to accomplish the work once they were voted into power.

Moreover, this was not an expansion of the cabinet, merely an allocation of departments. Both Shinde’s men and the BJP MLAs are enormously upset that accommodating Ajit Pawar and his men means they will now be cut out of even the posts of heads of various corporations which carry with them a cabinet rank.

Although Fadnavis last week attempted to pacify his men by saying they needed to take the NCP on board in order to weaken the opposition, no one in his party is convinced.

A survey this week revealed that Sharad Pawar has the support of 66 per cent of the people after the split, and that only 25 per cent believe that Ajit is the real leader of the NCP (9 per cent were unsure).

That gives credence to Aaditya Thackeray’s statement that the BJP was not in a position to win 145 out of 288 seats in the Assembly. With NCP back in business in the government, and the Pawar Sr faction popular among the masses, it changes nothing on the ground for either the Shinde faction or the BJP.

While only an actual election will tell who has lost how much with this latest game of chess in Maharashtra, of course.

However, for now, the MVA unity continues intact and the Shiv Sena (UBT) now also has hold of stick that Fadnavis once wielded against Uddhav Thackeray: that of the BJP charge of corruption among the NCP  ministers. Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut underlined the fact that they have a clean alliance now, with all the corrupt folks moved into the BJP ranks.

Nevertheless, for the moment it is game, set and match to Ajit Pawar and his adherents in the government of Maharashtra.

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