The final cut.

The Maha power game: Pawar vs Pawar; a taste of BJP’s 2024 intent

Pitting NCP against NCP after Sena against Sena, BJP sits pretty

Prashun Bhaumik | Mumbai | 3 July, 2023 | 09:00 PM

The game is not over. BJP’s pathway to 2024 in Maharashtra eases but a lot could depend on who emerges on top in NCP. Ajit Pawar has the backing of most NCP MLAs and surely among workers too. But Sharad Pawar could take the battle to the streets for the Maratha vote.

Ajit Pawar has finally bitten the bullet, severed his political relations with his uncle and Nationalist Congress Party patriarch Sharad Pawar, and demonstrated that a majority of the party’s elected leaders are with him. It’s a kind of takeover of the party, daring Pawar senior to either join him or face an inevitable confrontation. This is the most daring challenge yet to Sharad Pawar on the question of leadership, tactics, and endurance in the fag-end of the latter’s political career.
That a rebellion was brewing up from within was not lost on Sharad Pawar, but its extent wasn’t known. Now we know that the entire state brass – save a few exceptions – is with the nephew.

Battle For NCP Begins

Foremost, the question of who heads the NCP hangs in balance for now. Sharad Pawar remains the National President but Ajit Pawar has the numbers in the legislature and surely on the streets. How much of the Maratha vote would swing in the nephew’s favour remains to be seen.

Sharad Pawar has said he would hit the street and go to the people, but he remained non-committal on whether or not he would knock on the doors of the court, to settle who commands the party ranks. The differences on the face of it are severe – Ajit Pawar has said that it’s the NCP which has joined the Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis government, and this one’s not a rebellion.

Sharad Pawar says Ajit Pawar’s decision does not have the statutory backing of the party. So, in the run up to 2024, the question would further confound the confusion among the workers. It’s not yet settled both within the legislature and outside of it, who’s the reigning boss in the NCP.

That Ajit Pawar and a large section of the NCP leadership had been in favour of joining hands with the Bharatiya Janata Party is well-known. Reasons are umpteen: looming threat of jail for many in several cases of misappropriation; antipathy for the Congress and increasingly Uddhav’s Shiv Sena; large business interests that need state patronage; and simmering differences within the Pawar family.

What may have proved the last straw is Sharad Pawar elevating Supriya Sule as the Working President of the NCP along with Praful Patel and refusing to give the reins of the party to Ajit Pawar. So, the nephew has sought to claim what he strongly believes is his due.

In an era where – as Praful Patel himself suggested to a news channel last night – ideology is not the glue anymore, the nephew joining hands with the BJP is pragmatic routine business. It brings curtains to the will-he-won’t-he dilemma: Ajit Pawar has eschewed his own inhibitions, given the growing backing he has from other old-horses in the NCP such as Chhagan Bhujbal.

He told a press conference after being sworn in as the deputy chief minister that the NCP will be fighting all elections with Modi’s BJP while retaining its independence. Which means that NCP’s Ajit Pawar faction now is a new ally of the BJP in addition to Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena.

In one stroke, Ajit Pawar has rescued himself and his colleagues from a possible imprisonment, raised a rebellion against his uncle, reclaimed power, and changed political equations in the state.

A Weakened Opposition

The NCP is now a divided house and it bodes well for the BJP, which was unnerved by the rising sympathy for Uddhav Thackeray post the 2022-split in the Shiv Sena, and a growing bonhomie between the UBT Sena, the NCP and the Congress. That in hindsight also explains why the BJP is keen to have KCR’s Bharat Rashtra Samiti, Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, and Owasi’s AIMIM also test the Maharashtra waters; if they enter into the fray, they would eat away a slice of the MVA votes to ease BJP’s sailing.

That brings us to the context within which Sunday’s machinations – the second to be fuelled by the Modi-Shah duo in around a year’s time in the opposition camp – must be seen, never mind the fluid political scenario.

The Narendra Modi-led BJP’s 2024 preparations to plug the big gaps have begun, by perceptibly turning the lopsided arithmetic in Maharashtra, which sends 48 MPs to the Lok Sabha, to its own advantage. The perception was that Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) would sweep all the elections in the state with its formidable arithmetic, leaving the Modi regime with a big void in its 2024 plans. Eknath Shinde, from whose shoulders the BJP launched a pilot for dissecting the erstwhile Shiv Sena, wasn’t able to bring any big vote dividends.
It is the same gamebook that the Modi-Shah duo has applied once more, this time to the NCP, with Ajit Pawar and company more than game for such a churning. For three years, the nephew who has been a perpetual chief-minister-in-waiting wanted to jump ship along with tens of others from the NCP, but for Sharad Pawar’s open diffidence to do business with Modi-Shah. The scales tilted in his favour, because the BJP too realises that it needs a vote-catcher in the state where barring Devendra Fadnavis, it has no face to go to people for votes.

Comfort For BJP, But

What happens to the Shinde Shiv Sena? What would the voters and NCP cadres do? And what’s the Congress’ game plan? These and many questions abound. There’s no doubt that the BJP has also managed to throw Eknath Shinde into a position of oblivion. Certainly, for the 39 others of his camp, and a vast section of the BJP cadres who have no idea of the games New Delhi is scripting, this is a moment of discomfiture, pregnant with many uncertainties.

The BJP high command has managed to put itself back into a comfortable position with arithmetic, not that it’s a given that it would sweep all the elections. The opposition parties trying to sew a new grand national alliance would be alert to many machinations that are likely to unfold in the next few months in line with this playbook and recalibrate their strategies.

A dented Sharad Pawar, a weakened Uddhav Thackeray and a weak Congress are all that’s left of the MVA in Maharashtra with starkly reduced numbers in the legislature. There’s in fact no opposition left in the state. Would the MVA still manage to convince the people of an unsettled Maharashtra to vote for them is a herculean task. But not impossible.

A new round of the game has just begun; the last chapter of the saga is still to be scripted.

Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based journalist