Senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar’s decision to hop over to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)camp to help Devendra Fadnavis take oath for his second consecutive term as the Chief Minister may have astonished many in and outside Maharashtra, but he has apparently made the most of the political tricks he learnt over the years from none other than his uncle Sharad Pawar, the Maratha strongman known for his deft political manoeuvring. (Catch all live updates on the Maharashtra political drama here)
Way back in 1978, Pawar Senior had toppled the Congress government led by Vasantdada Patil to become the youngest chief minister in the state. More than four decades later, his nephew appears to have turned the tables on him. In an overnight coup, Ajit handed over to Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari a letter of support purported to have been signed by the all the NCP legislators, leading to the revocation of President’s rule and swearing-in of Fadnavis as the Chief Minister along with him as his deputy.
It all happened within hours after the NCP and the Congress agreed to join a Shiv Sena-led government at a meeting in Mumbai chaired by Sharad Pawar on Friday evening, where Ajit was also present. The three-party coalition was set to stake claim to form the new government under the leadership of Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray on Saturday but Ajit pulled the rung out from under its feet, catching everybody in the alliance unawares.
According to sources, Ajit apparently did the somersault after it became clear that Uddhav would remain the chief minister for a full-year term. Ajit along with a host of party legislators had all along been pressing for rotational chief minister for NCP and the Sena for a term of two and a half years each saying that the number of their party MLAs was only two less than that of the Sena. In the October 21 assembly polls, the Sena and NCP had won 56 and 54 seats respectively. However, it is said, Sharad Pawar was not keen on a rotational chief minister for his party, a move which apparently irked Ajit and drove him to the BJP camp.
Curiously, Ajit was supposed to be the deputy chief minister in the Sena-led government as well, but he chose to side with the BJP for the same post, apparently realising it would have better prospects. The Sena has now accused Ajit of hatching the conspiracy due to his fears of the ED's corruption case against him, asserting that Sharad Pawar has no role in the high drama. The Congress also believes that his nephew had backstabbed Pawar at this stage of his political career.
Sharad, on his part, has distanced himself from Ajit’s move, tweeting that it is the personal decision of his nephew. His daughter and party MP Supriya Sule has also claimed that the party and the family have split. So where does it leave Pawar, who had emerged as the kingmaker all through the Maharashtra drama till late last night? If Ajit has really engineered a split in the NCP, joining forces with the BJP, does it signal the end of the political road for his venerated uncle who strode like colossus in Maharashtra politics?
With Prime minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister for Home Amit Shah’s backing and blessings, Ajit Pawar may not find it difficult now to sway 36 – two-thirds of the total 54 – legislators of his party to back the Fadnavis government in the upcoming trust vote so as to escape disqualification under the provisions of the anti-defection law. Ajit might be helped by the fact that he had played a key role in the selection of the party candidates in the assembly polls and most of the newly elected MLAs owe their allegiance to him.
Political commentators, however, are still debating as to whether Sharad Pawar really had no inkling about his nephew’s move. Some of them believe that he had reached a tacit understanding with the BJP after his recent one-to-one meeting with Prime minister Modi in Delhi. They think that Ajit, who has always been projected as Sharad Pawar’s heir-apparent, is unlikely to go against the wishes of his uncle. Two months ago, he had gone to the extent of quitting politics in protest against the naming of his uncle in a corruption case by the ED, though he rescinded his decision later to contest and win the assembly polls from Baramati constituency with a record margin. But then, as they say, blood is not always thicker than water in politics