Several years ago, at a public rally in Pune, an old man stood up and shouted “Sharad Pawar ki Jai”. Pawar, who was addressing the gathering stopped his speech mid-way and stared hard at the old man, who continued to chant the slogan. Several minutes went by. Suddenly, the leader uttered a name and asked the old man if he had identified him correctly.
The old man was thrilled and replied in the affirmative. As he was about to sit down, Pawar publicly reminisced about a campaign, when the same man had fed him jowar bhakris and raw onions as a snack. The memory triggered tears in the eyes of the old man and earned Pawar a thunderous applause. Such is NCP chief, former Maharashtra chief minister and former Union minister Sharad Pawar’s people-connect that few can emulate.
Even as the 81-year-old leader maintains a tight hold on the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) he founded, talk of his successor has started doing the rounds in Maharashtra’s power corridors.
Though such speculation is not new, it is now buzzing with even more intensity, especially after the rebellion in the Shiv Sena, which has brought an unease within the NCP. Unlike other regional parties, the NCP has a powerful second-rung leadership with mass leaders groomed and mentored by Pawar waiting quietly for their chance under the sun.
Unlike Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, who had lost connect with his cadre, Pawar is considered a people’s leader who continues to hold sway over the masses across Maharashtra. “There is no comparison between the two. Uddhav is far away from Pawar Saheb, who is a giant in politics,” a political analyst tells Outlook.
With talks of succession rife, Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, an NCP Lok Sabha MP, holds a slight edge over her cousin Ajit Pawar, the leader of the Opposition in Maharashtra. While Ajit’s naked ambition to be the state’s CM has made him an “unguided missile”, it is Supriya’s warmth, understanding of national politics and vocal approach that puts her a step higher.
There are covert undercurrents between the two and their differences are closely guarded secrets. Yet, in the eventuality of the daughter being anointed as heir, the BJP-inclined nephew will not give up without a struggle, say sources.
Given the NCP’s strong second-rung leadership, it will be no cakewalk for either Ajit or Surpriya to lead it. Each of the NCP’s second rung probables are mass leaders, including Jayant Patil, Dilip Walse-Patil, Sunil Tatkare, Dhananjay Munde. Today, with Shiv Sena weakened, NCP is pushing hard to fill the vacuum in Maharashtra’s opposition space. However, many party leaders feel a tie-up with the BJP will benefit the NCP. It will not only help them survive, but also keep them away from central probe agencies.
In this changed political scenario, there is a question mark looming over the NCP’s future. Since its formation, the NCP has never formed a government in Maharashtra on its own. It has always piggybacked, first with Congress and then with the Shiv Sena. Sharad Pawar’s cunning maneuvers have also seen his credibility being questioned at all times.
While the Ajit-Supriya rivalry has played out quietly, fourth-generation politicians of the Pawar clan—Rohit and Parth Pawar—are also contenders for the space within the second rung.
Rohit (36) is the grand-nephew of Sharad Pawar and is the CEO of the Baramati Agro Limited. He is also closely connected to sugar lobby politics and has been president of the Indian Sugar Mills Association from September 2018 to 2019. He has contested the zilla parishad polls from Shirsuphal Gunawadi constituency in Pune’s Baramati taluka in 2017. Currently, he is an MLA from the Karjat-Jhamkhed assembly seat. He works in the background, establishing a connect with the people, is non-controversial and adheres to the party diktat—all factors that have found favour with his grand-uncle.
Sharad Pawar’s other grand-nephew, Ajit’s son Parth Pawar, has big ambitions. His political career has been a non-starter since his loss to Shrirang Barne from the Maval seat in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. But the Pawar clan’s youngest dynast has the knack of staying relevant through his tweets. From his stance on the Ram Janmabhoomi temple to the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, Parth’s tweets have been in conflict with his party’s stand.
Like Ajit and Supriya, Rohit and Parth too are covert political rivals. On the face of it, the clan appears to be toeing the line of the patriarch, but beneath the layers of warmth is a hardening layer of ambition pushing its way to the top. To avoid a combative situation between his daughter and his nephew, the aging patriarch engaged Supriya in national politics, leaving Ajit to handle Maharashtra. But their differences are bared frequently. It is no secret that Ajit is intensely ambitious and wants to occupy the CM’s chair—a dream, many feel, is being scuttled by his uncle. Ajit’s grouse is that Rohit has been chosen over Parth and is being promoted by the NCP patriarch.
Today, Sharad Pawar’s influence, which spreads across the political divide, has plateaued, and his ambition to hold the country’s top job appears to have faded. Yet, political alliances are incomplete without his participation. “Saheb will always be a necessary part of any political alliance in India. He may be out of power, but Saheb is still a powerful and influential leader,” a NCP leader tells Outlook.
For a man who stitched together the MVA (Maha Vikas Aghadi) alliance with ideological opposites—the Congress and the Shiv Sena, along with the NCP—sewing the tearing seams of his clan’s ambitions may be his toughest fight yet.
Pan to the Shiv Sena. The second rung rebellion under the leadership of incumbent chief minister Eknath Shinde is a strong reminder that dynast Aaditya Thackeray will have a tough time claiming the legacy of his grandfather and Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray.
The exercise has shown that the Thackeray dynasty—Uddhav and his son Aaditya—face a tough challenge from the second rung, and cannot take their present positions as topmost leaders of the party for granted. “Aaditya may be the last of the Thackeray dynasts to lead the Shiv Sena. We doubt if another strong dynast will emerge from Uddhavji’s family,” says a Shiv Sena leader.
According to sources, Aaditya’s younger brother Tejas too is very politically inclined. However, his ambitions are kept on a tight leash by his mother Rashmi Thackeray, who wants him to stay fixed on his environmental pursuits.
“He is keen on stepping into politics. There is talk that he could even side with Shinde, if he is not allowed to enter politics,” says a source in the know of events. Intra-family feuds aren’t new to the Thackeray clan. Uddhav’s cousin Raj Thackeray—the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief—is yet another contender for Bal Thackeray’s legacy. The competition for political capital had led to an irreparable bitterness between the cousins.
Of late, Raj has been on the warpath to appropriate the Thackeray legacy. He has also extended a hand of support to Shinde, his cousin’s bête noire.With both the NCP and the Shiv Sena gearing up for a generational shift in their respective dynasties, the battle brewing within in the Pawar clan and the open war for Shiv Sena’s legacy could go a long way in defining the course of Maharashtra politics in the years to come.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Dithering Dynasties")