What next for Ajit Pawar as Sharad Pawar decides to stay on as NCP chief?

With Pawar deciding to stay on as the NCP chief, a status quo will be ensured for now

Sharad Pawar and Ajit Pawar (File) Sharad Pawar with party colleagues after announcing his decision to quit as NCP president.

On May 2, Sharad Pawar shocked party leaders and supporters by announcing he was stepping down as the chief of the Nationalist Congress Party. However, four days later, he had a change of mind and decided to continue as the party chief. 

His decision to step down was met by protests by hundreds of party workers upset over the move. A few leaders present at the announcement even cried. A spate of resignations followed, including by party general secretary Jitendra Awhad. Pawar's nephew Ajit was perhaps the only leader not in shock. He even urged leaders not to be emotional about it and said the decision should be in the light of his age and health also. 

Following his decision to step down, the veteran leader set up a committee to choose the next party chief. The committee rejected his decision to step down. 

"I can't disrespect your sentiments. Due to your love, I am respecting the demand that was made to me to withdraw my resignation and the resolution that was passed by senior NCP leaders," he said announcing his change of mind in a press conference at the YB Chavan Centre on Friday.

Party workers were in a jubilant mood outside the office their 'saheb' would continue to remain the party chief. The NCP leaders would have also heaved a sigh of relief. However, Ajit Pawar was conspicuously missing during Friday's conference when his uncle announced his decision to withdraw his resignation. 

The NCP chief tried to brush his absence away stating "everyone can't be present in one press conference" and that the leaders had unanimously taken the decision to reject his resignation. 

Ajit himself released a statement hours later stating Pawar's decision to remain the NCP's national president would energise party workers, including him, and that it would strengthen the unity of the Maha Vikas Agadhi (MVA) and opposition parties. 

Was Pawar's decision to stay on as the chief perhaps to ensure that the party remained united and there was no rebellion? There were rumours a few days ago that Ajit was planning to join hands with the BJP, something that the Maharashtra leader of opposition had himself denied. 

What will be his next move, no one knows. Many believe that Pawar's resignation masterstroke will strengthen the position of his daughter Supriya Sule, who is likely to be his political heir. Insiders suggest, it is possible that responsibilities could be divided. While, Supriya, a Member of Parliament, could be made the national face of the party, Ajit could get to manage the party affairs in the state. For now, it's anybody's guess. 

Pawar agreed that there must be a succession plan in the NCP and his focus will be on making organisational changes in the party. 

But, will the patriarch indeed go ahead and carry out major changes in the party organisation and key roles, is something everyone, especially Ajit would be closely watching. 

There are several key elections in several states in 2023, starting with Karnataka this month and then Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan later this year. 

There has been a debate within certain sections of the party whether it would be better off going with the BJP. But, Ajit and his supporters may not take any decision in haste. Rather, he may want to see, which way the wind is blowing in these various elections, before planning any move.  

What if Pawar senior does indeed rollout big organisational changes and perhaps make Jayant Patil the Leader of the Opposition in Maharashtra assembly sidelining Ajit? In such a scenario, Ajit could make his move, perhaps closer to the LokSabha elections in 2024. 

Ever since Supriya entered politics by contesting a by-election to the parliament in 2006, there has been a buzz on who--the daughter or nephew--will eventually be Pawar's successor. But, matters never escalated, until in 2019, when Ajit even joined hands with the BJP and formed a government. It barely lasted 72 hours as the NCP leaders returned back to the party fold. Ajit was forgiven and even made the deputy chief minister in the MVA government. 

The cousins are known to have a lot of respect for each other. But Ajit, who still enjoys the support of 20-odd legislators from the party, may not let Supriya be the chief minister candidate in Maharashtra easily if matters come to that in future. 

With Pawar deciding to stay on as the NCP chief, a status quo will be ensured for now. But, it may not remain so for long. What changes, if any, the veteran brings about in the party leadership and structure, and what roles will Supriya and Ajit get could yet determine the future course.

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