Making sense of the NCP split
Why the optics of the split may be deceptive, and the ace Sharad Pawar has up his sleeve
Sharad Pawar would have seen it coming. His nephew Ajit has been snapping at his heels for what must seem like an eternity. Tired of the uncle’s apparent reluctance to cede ground to him and other younger people in the party, he even managed to pressure Pawar Sr into a (very shortlived) retirement in May this year — but before Ajit could even uncork the celebratory champagne, the uncle was back, apparently deferring to the wishes of his supporters.
Sharad Pawar has a well-earned reputation for unbeatable political cunning. Political observers in Maharashtra, who have seen this inscrutable tactician at work over decades, find it hard to believe that he hadn’t bargained for Ajit’s next moves, his attempts to wean away the uncle’s loyalists among the elected legislators.
At the press conference, barely an hour after the split in his NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) was formalised, Pawar Sr looked cheerful and sounded almost relieved. Anand Agashe, who ghost-wrote On My Terms, Pawar’s biography in English, said: “He is not daunted in the least (by the split).” Pawar himself pointed out that he had seen worse in 1980, when out of 58 legislators in his Congress (Socialist) Party then, all but six had walked over to the Congress (I). “I rebuilt the party, and nearly all who defected then, barring two or three, lost their seats in the next elections.”
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Media commentaries that see the NCP split as irreversible damage to the Sharad Pawar camp — which has the support of fewer MLAs than the Ajit faction, are perhaps missing the point that this assembly will dissolve next year, and even before that there will be a Lok Sabha election, which may substantially alter the dynamics of the state election later in the year. When that time comes, these MLAs will vie for tickets, and cynically reassess their prospects. For now, as another political observer Abhay Deshpande points out, Ajit and his band of supporters — “who have all made enough to last them at least three generations” — have bargained to stay out of jail. But they are unlikely, he says, to be accepted again by voters or even NCP supporters.
Even if Pawar Sr is not really “undaunted” by the split, as his biographer would have us think, and is merely affecting unconcern, he will know that when it’s time to go back to the people for their vote, he holds the better cards; he knows people vote for him and not for the NCP’s individual candidates, whatever their standing. For example, when four-term MP Udayanraje Bhosale, a direct descendant of Shivaji, resigned weeks after winning the Lok Sabha from Satara—one of the two seats of the Maratha royals (the other is Kolhapur)—to join the BJP, Pawar was left scrambling for a suitable candidate to take on Bhosale in the (October 2019) byelection. He settled for a retired bureaucrat who had no political base, and yet the bureaucrat won with a resounding majority. The people chose Sharad Pawar over the scion of their beloved warrior king.
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So much for the internecine warfare in the NCP. What does the BJP hope to gain from engineering yet another split, in yet another party? Veteran Marathi journalist Pratap Asbe thinks Ajit is speaking not for himself but for the BJP, which sees Pawar Sr as its main stumbling block in Maharashtra. In terms of Lok Sabha seats, Deshpande reminds us, we are talking about the second largest state (Maharashtra has 48 Lok Sabha seats) after Uttar Pradesh (80). “They have done their worst to vitiate the communal atmosphere in the state, but the attempt to polarise [voters] has not gone according to plan. The MVA (Maha Vikas Aghadi) alliance, even after the break-up of the Shiv Sena, was still looking formidable, and several internal surveys of the BJP had found the party losing ground after aligning with Shinde. Realising that Shinde was proving to be a liability, they had to do something to destabilise the MVA. But the BJP does not see that the people of Maharashtra are gravitating towards the MVA not so much for what they are doing but because they are sick of the BJP’s shenanigans, including the way they have gone after their political rivals since 2019.”
Sources reveal that the BJP’s internal surveys have identified four focus states— Bengal, Bihar, Karnataka and Maharashtra from where they have around 135–140 Lok Sabha seats. These are the only states where they can hope to retain or gain seats in the Lok Sabha. Their prospects in south India are really iffy, and large bipolar states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in central and north India could go either way. To cobble together a comfortable majority, the BJP must make a stab at winning big in these states, hence the desperate play. In 2019, the BJP–Shiv Sena had won 42 (of 48 seats), of which the Sena had 18. The BJP apparently believes that Shinde can win them no more than five seats, never mind all those newspaper ads last month proclaiming his popularity; they also don’t see themselves winning more than eight to 10 seats
“Just wait and watch,” says Deshpande. “Closer to the elections, even Ajit Pawar will likely turn into a liability (for the BJP).” The NCP vote, he explains, is secular and flirting with the saffron parties—including, in the past, the Shiv Sena—has only damaged the NCP. Also, the BJP’s attempts to vitiate the state’s communal harmony has backfired, it seems—as a result of the manifest polarisation, the Muslim vote seems to be coalescing in favour of the MVA in general and, hold your breath, in favour of Uddhav’s Shiv Sena, in particular. Evidently, Uddhav’s public statements about shepherding his party towards a tolerant Hindutva that does not get in the way of other people’s religious beliefs has done much to soothe their nerves. During his time as chief minister, he risked being labelled a traitor to the Hindutva cause when he apologised in the assembly for mixing religion with politics and fiercely resisted the BJP’s attempts to harass Muslims during Ramzan.
Muslims, as per the last census, comprise 12 per cent of the state’s population—and this vote is certainly going against the BJP. Dalits account for a substantial 20 per cent, and are heavily concentrated in Vidarbha and Marathwada. The Marathas, mostly with the Congress and NCP, are about 30–32 per cent. Parsing the BJP’s political moves, Deshpande says: “They had to dig a tunnel into this vote bank, but there is likely to be a massive backlash.” Even after all these manoeuvres, the MVA vote, political analyst Hemant Desai believes, will stay intact.
On the face of it, both Uddhav’s Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar’s NCP are embattled and look diminished as political entities, but their ability to swing the vote in favour of an MVA alliance has, counter-intuitively, been lent a new edge. They have better reasons now to stick together, and if they do, they will most likely have the benefit of voter sympathy in addition to the loyalties they command.