Can Ajit Pawar emerge from the shadow of Sharad Pawar?

Ajit has been worried about the growing influence of Supriya Sule in NCP

26-Ajit-Pawar Ajit Pawar | Amey Mansabdar

When NCP leader Ajit Pawar held a closed-door meeting with a few legislators on April 18 at his office in Maharashtra’s state legislature, the state politics was abuzz with rumours of him crossing over to the BJP with a group of MLAs. But Ajit seemed unaffected by the speculation and was busy with legislative work and the grievances brought to him by his party legislators. He, however, sounded a bit upset when he hurriedly spoke to the media after the meeting. “I will remain with the NCP until my last breath,” he said. “There is not an iota of truth in the speculations. I do not have any letter signed by 40 legislators and there is no need for such a letter. I request you to stop these rumours. We are working as a family to strengthen the party.”

Ajit has been under a cloud of suspicion since he formed a government with the BJP in 2019, even as his uncle, NCP founder Sharad Pawar, was trying to cobble up a coalition with the Shiv Sena and the Congress to keep the BJP at bay. The senior Pawar’s will prevailed and the legislators who had gone with Ajit returned to the NCP camp, pulling the curtains on the Devendra Fadnavis government.

Pawar refrained from taking any action against Ajit, though, probably sensing the support his nephew enjoyed among party legislators. In fact, Ajit was made the deputy chief minister in the Maha Vikas Aghadi government led by Uddhav Thackeray. When the MVA government was toppled by Eknath Shinde and the BJP, Ajit returned to the state legislature as the leader of the opposition.

That Ajit is lenient to Fadnavis is an open secret. During his speeches in the assembly, he would target Chief Minister Shinde, but spare Fadnavis and the BJP. This bonhomie fuelled the rumours that Ajit was again getting cosy with the BJP. Ajit clearly did not want to rub the BJP the wrong way, as an Enforcement Directorate investigation was progressing on the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam case. Also, it is said that a power tussle is going on in the Pawar family over succession.

Ajit has been worried about the growing influence of Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, MP, in the party’s decision-making apparatus. Though Sule has always said that she was happy in Delhi, Ajit loyalists fear that if the NCP gets the chief minister’s post, Sule will be chosen over Ajit.

Ajit’s ambition of taking over the reins of the NCP has never been a secret. In fact, in a meeting more than a decade ago, he had hinted that Pawar senior should move to the role of a mentor. But he still remains in the shadow of the powerful uncle.

It is also no secret that Ajit wants to be the chief minister of Maharashtra. He has been deputy chief minister four times and has held almost all important portfolios except that of home minister. He had a slim chance in 2004 when the NCP performed better than ally Congress. However, Pawar conceded the post of the chief minister to the Congress in exchange for three crucial portfolios. Ajit will get another shot in 2024, if the MVA wins the assembly elections and the NCP emerges as the single largest party.

Ajit has been keeping his cards close to his chest after the fiasco in 2019. At least half of the 54 NCP legislators are his staunch loyalists. In fact, the NCP legislators can be broadly divided into three―those who will not go with the BJP at any cost, the pragmatic politicians who do not mind joining hands with the BJP and the hardcore Sharad Pawar loyalists. While loyalty to Sharad Pawar is the thread that binds all these segments, Ajit loyalists are mostly part of the second segment comprising pragmatic politicians.

The speculation of Ajit jumping the ship started with a meeting between Sharad Pawar and Uddhav a while ago when Pawar told Uddhav that some of his party leaders were under pressure to join hands with the BJP because of the threat of agencies like the ED and CBI. It got currency when the ED did not include the names of Ajit and his wife, Sunetra, in the charge sheet it filed in the Jarandeswhar Cooperative Sugar Factory case.

NCP says it is all a creation of the media. “All is well within the NCP and the media should not spread false news,” said Dhananjay Munde, senior NCP legislator and a confidant of Ajit.

The Congress, however, is more or less certain that Ajit was all set to chart a new course with the support of the BJP and that it was the BJP’s plan B if the Supreme Court verdict goes against Shinde and the other legislators who defected from the Shiv Sena. “Ajit and his group were ready,” said a senior party leader. “Maharashtra BJP was overjoyed, but the number one in the BJP (Prime Minister Narendra Modi) forced them to apply the brakes.”

A senior BJP leader, however, dismissed the Congress’s claims. “We are committed to Eknath Shinde and his group,” he said. “There is no question of giving chief ministership to Ajit Pawar at this stage. We also feel that the SC verdict will not affect the stability of the government. Ajit and his group could come with us in the future, around the time of the Lok Sabha elections and if that happens we will easily cross the 40 seat mark in Maharashtra.”