'Neither tired, nor retired': Why Sharad Pawar is no walkover for Ajit
If the BJP thinks it has finished NCP in Maharashtra by giving wings to Ajit Pawar's ambitions, it may have to eat crow, for Sharad Pawar is still getting more public support than the rebels
For years Sharad Pawar had feared that one day the party that he built so painstakingly from the scratch and gave it a national presence would be split and taken over. And so, he concentrated all power in his own hands, throwing a few crumbs at his supporters but never allowing the complete consolidation of human and other resources to anybody else, including family members.
Conscious of the manner in which a strong and mighty Shiv Sena broke up soon after its founder Bal Thackeray decided his seemingly politically naïve son Uddhav would lead the party after him—naming him working president and outlining a campaigning role for nephew Raj, which would practically keep the latter away from the power centre in the party—Pawar decided he would give a wide berth to such a division of the spoils to prevent a similar split.
Over the years, whenever questioned about his political heir, Pawar’s pat reply would be: “He will rise from the grassroots.” After his daughter Supriya Sule was inducted as an active member of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in 2008, that answer was modified, “He or she will rise from the grassroots.”
It was clear to his nephew Ajit that Pawar would eventually choose his daughter over his nephew. Ajit could not contain his resentment as he told reporters, “Being the son or daughter of the party president does not automatically make you the number 2 in the party.”
That was conveyed to Pawar Sr and he was always on the lookout for rebellion, curtailing Ajit’s powers in many ways.
For example, while he trusted Chhagan Bhujbal to be both deputy chief minister of Maharashtra and home minister in the Vilasrao Deshmukh government, he split the job when it came to his own nephew who was given finance when he became the deputy CM. That is because Marathas have always ruled Maharashtra, and Bhujbal being an OBC (Other Backward Classes), would never be able to muster the kind of support that a Maratha could.
So, even the post of NCP Maharashtra president was farmed out to OBCs (including Bhujbal), tribals and members of other communities who did not have everything that Marathas in Maharashtra, particularly those with the NCP do: sugar factories, educational institutions, dairy farms, co- operative banks—which bring them a lot of money, people connect and power over their lives even outside the government.
Nevertheless, Pawar’s refusal to name a political heir had been frustrating even his trusted loyalists for years. One of these, who is now with the Ajit camp had told this correspondent, “Sharad Pawar is Sharad Pawar today only because Yashwantrao Chavan took him under his wing and groomed him to take over in the future. Pawar saheb could thus build on that support and gather his own core team and mass of supporters. Similarly, we too need to know who the next leader will be so that we can rally round him.”
But that is precisely what Sharad Pawar was afraid of. That in rallying round his political heir, they would cease to revolve round him and he would eventually lose his support base and influence.
So, he allowed things to continue as they were even as his own loyalists got increasingly frustrated with time. And no one was more frustrated at Sharad Pawar's intransigence than his nephew Ajit Pawar. Thus, it would only be a matter of time before that frustration would turn into rebellion.
The first time that Ajit attempted to pull off a coup in the party was in 2012 as deputy to chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. His involvement in the Rs 70,000 crore irrigation scam had just been exposed and Pawar, who has so far never been caught with his hand in the till, decided to throw him to the wolves by doing nothing to prevent his resignation.
An enraged Ajit tried taking over the party as Pawar sat clueless in Delhi as the Union agriculture minister. He worked the phones hard that evening to prevent a break-up and succeeded only because many of the people who are with Ajit today disliked the nephew and they were ministers and members of a ruling coalition, needing to be in power to protect their business interests.
Ajit returned to the government in a few months. But by then, he had realised that to capture the party he needed to have more control over ticket distribution.
Over the years, he has built a band of faithful followers, and those of Sharad Pawar’s supporters with him now are there because the same sentiment moves through them today—they need to be with the government to protect their business interests and, of course, they do not wish to go to jail, given the way the ruling BJP is unleashing central agencies against opposition leaders in the country.
But that is only so far as the older ministers are concerned. According to Anand Agashe, Sharad Pawar’s ghost writer (he scripted Pawar’s biography On My Terms), the bulk of the men who supported Ajit Pawar at his show of strength in Mumbai are terribly divided between “head and heart”.
“Their emotions and loyalty are actually with Pawar saheb, but their business and other interests are better served with Ajit. So do not consider these numbers to be final. There will be many movements from one camp to the other over the next several days, even months.”
Agashe believes, after watching the groundswell of support Pawar received as he hit the road less than a day after Ajit’s rebellion, that Pawar Sr still has it in him to turn the tables on his nephew by drawing on the younger generation of party supporters who for years have been stymied in their careers, including their electoral interests, by this band of veterans who have refused to cede to the common workers and supported only their own family members.
“Then again, while Pawar Sr was busy at the centre, it was Ajit who was in daily touch with them. But Pawar has lost none of his magic with the masses.”
Clearly, Ajit too believes the same. That's why he is taking a leaf out of Eknath Shinde's book and displaying large pictures of his uncle in the background of his meetings. But unlike Bal Thackeray, who is not around to choose between son and an outsider, Pawar has objected to those displays and been swift to underline the fact that while the rebels call his party illegal, they still cannot do without him in the background.
Predictably, the only thing that his nephew is now able to fault him on is that he is 83 and still not retiring to make way for a newer generation. In May this year, Ajit tried to pull, off another coup by declaring that his uncle was tired and needed to rest. He was quite taken aback by the groundswell of protest from his own supporters against Pawar's retirement and the uncle, to his chagrin, was back in no time.
Now, to the open mockery from his nephew over his age, Pawar retorted, “Eighty-two or 92, I shall continue in politics for as long as I want and am able to. I am neither tired nor retired. I will rebuild my party again."