'Unlike Pawar, NCP rebels have no ideology, only self-interest'

Tired of waiting for him to retire they took matters into their own hands but Pawar's fightback is not good news for their future

NCP Chief Sharad Pawar (photo: Getty Images)
NCP Chief Sharad Pawar (photo: Getty Images)

Sujata Anandan

Less than 12 hours after Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar seemed to suffer a major shock with a split in his party, he had hit the streets to rebuild the Nationalist Congress Party from the bottom up once again. 

He could not have done better than visiting the Samadhi of Yashwantrao Chavan at Karad in the Satara district of the state to seek the blessings of his mentor. Maharashtra's first chief minister is still highly regarded among the rural electorate, remembered for much of the social reform that has made Maharashtra the unique polity it is today. 

Pawar’s energy and determination and his calm collected manner after the break-up continue to send mixed signals to the people as sections believe he engineered the exits of many of his acolytes headed by his nephew and their entry into the BJP. But others believe he would never go so far as to break up his own party — after all, now, he has the hard task of building it up again at an age when he should have been gracefully retiring or fading into the sunset. 

But, break-up or not, Pawar was very unlikely to have voluntarily faded away. And that is what is said to be behind the split in the party – because all those who have rebelled, including Ajit, got tired of waiting for him to retire and decided to take the matter into their own hands. 

For more than five years now, the NCP has been internally split wide open between one group that has been advocating an alliance with the BJP and another that is fiercely committed to the secular ideology. Leading the first pack always has been former civil aviation minister Praful Patel who had charges of misappropriation about Air India pending against him. But now he has to battle the added allegation of dealing with notorious don Dawood Ibrahim’s aide who has invested in his real estate business. 

Ranged against him were leaders like Jayant Patil, the current state president of the NCP and Jitendra Awhad who has just been made leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra assembly in place of Ajit Pawar. At one point in time, Patel and Awhad had almost come to blows at a party executive meeting, even as Pawar looked on expressionless and postponed the decision to a future date. 

To keep up with both groups between 2014 and 2018, he flirted with the BJP from time to time. Result: the NCP lagged behind all other political parties, including the Congress and the Shiv Sena, in the 2017 local self-government elections. 

The NCP vote is a fiercely socialist and secular vote and the BJP’s shenanigans, including with regard to the lynching of Muslims and cow vigilantism, were hurting the NCP more than they were the other parties because the NCP is primarily a party of farmers. Saying nothing against cow vigilantism was affecting the economic interests of these farmers and Pawar quickly set out on a course correction by re-allying with Congress. 

Says a retired bureaucrat who has known Sharad Pawar for a long time, “Whatever opinion you may have about his politics, there are two things about Sharad Pawar that you will never be able to deny — his secular socialism and his fierce commitment to farmers’ interests.” 

So now with Pawar’s clear stands against the BJP, including about a uniform civil code, and his leading efforts to bring inimical groups together for unity against the BJP, the rebel leaders knew he had made up his mind about which way to go and that he would not be swayed towards a saffron alliance. 

Says Pratap Asbe, a senior political analyst who has followed the NCP very closely since its inception, “Every one of the rebel leaders owes everything he has personally to Sharad Pawar and that includes Ajit. They have all made ample money, and each one of them owns sugar factories or educational institutions. So, they have immense power and money but their active political careers are over. They can rise no further than this. Their singular concern now is to stay out of jail and, perhaps, make a little more money towards a retirement fund. They have no ideology. Self-interest is their only goal. That is why they have joined hands with the BJP.” 

But Asbe says their time in active politics could last only as long as the term of this government. “More than half of them will lose their elections. It will not be a cakewalk for Ajit, either. For Sharad Pawar is now in a fighting mode and if he so decides he could bring down his nephew at the next elections.” 

But will he be able to do that, both on the grounds of blood being thicker than water and his ability to convince the people? 

Asbe believes, based on the groundswell of reaction at the grassroots in less than a day, that people love a fighter and they love a victim. “Pawar is now both. Don’t forget, with all the party stalwarts out of the BJP, it opens up a vast window of opportunity for the young party workers who would have had to wait years, if not decades, until these leaders ceded ground. They will all now rally around Sharad Pawar. I would say the scales are, as of today, slightly tilted towards Sharad Pawar despite this huge setback. It will depend on how the BJP works its handicap in a state that is essentially socialist, not communal.” 

So do not write off Sharad Pawar as yet, he warns.  

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