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Maharashtra Mayhem: In Pawar land, There is Far More Than What Meets the Eye

Sharad Pawar, in his 56 years of politics, has been at the centre of power or around it – never too far from it.

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Twenty-four years ago, in June 1999, Sharad Pawar formed the Nationalist Congress Party, along with his expelled colleagues from the Congress. They had a bone to pick with the fact that Sonia Gandhi, born in Italy, was the president of the party and might have become the Prime Minister of India if the party had won an electoral majority. However, the foreign-origin issue went right out into Mumbai’s balmy air only four months later when Pawar allied with the Congress to form the state government in Maharashtra. It is important to remember this now as the party seemingly split into two and Ajit Pawar led a faction last Sunday to join forces with the Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis or the Shiv Sena-BJP government.

There’s more. In 2014, when the two saffron parties parted ways before the state assembly elections and the BJP fell just short of a majority, Sharad Pawar had quickly but quietly offered NCP’s support to Fadnavis. In 2019, Ajit Pawar had gone a step ahead to take the oath of office with Fadnavis while Pawar was attempting an alliance of his party with the Shiv Sena and Congress; it is likely that Pawar knew. And, it must be remembered that, despite his firm stand on secularism, he has hosted Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his hometown Baramati with pomp and splendour. Then, there are the coups or near-coups he sprang in the 1970s and 80s.

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Political Realignments in Maharashtra

The thread that runs through is that Sharad Pawar, in his long 56 years of political life, has somehow managed to be at the centre of power or around it – never too far from it. Once this is understood, it is possible to make sense of the moves that Pawar makes and the direction that his party takes.

The political realignments that have happened in Maharashtra in the last few years have all had their own impulses but, within them, Pawar has had several boxes to check: secure the future of his party that has remained a regional party despite his best attempts, sort out the succession path for daughter Supriya Sule without alienating nephew Ajit Pawar, make peace with a particularly vengeful regime at the centre letting loose central investigating agencies on real or trumped-up cases on him and his party leaders, re-assert his supremacy over the state’s politics and prepare the ground for the general as well as state assembly elections next year.

At 82, that’s a rather arduous list to work on. But Pawar, despite his ailments, has never been found wanting on physical stamina; his mental agility remains as sharp as ever and his political acumen even sharper. Unfazed by Sunday’s events in which he lost most of the second-rung leaders of the NCP, including his close aides like Dilip Walse Patil and trusted representative in New Delhi Praful Patel, he hit the road the following day to resurrect the party from the grassroots.

Can he do it, is it an achievable goal? Given the generous amount of sympathy which has come his way, he may be able to infuse a new sense of purpose into the party, especially among the youth. However, in a meeting called by Ajit Pawar on Wednesday, 5 July, between 15 and 30 or more MLAs of the party were present, showing that he commands a loyal fan base of his own. After Pawar Senior, he has the political chops to rally people though he is not an orator or a greatly amiable person. Should he wean away most of the MLAs, the party's legislative wing may slip out of Sharad Pawar's authority even if he is able to steady the party itself.  

Yet, that may not be enough in the changed political framework of Maharashtra which is dominated by the BJP’s intention to destabilise and weaken opposition parties. In the full-frontal assault that has been underway for nearly four years now, legislative wings of the Shiv Sena and NCP broke away; the Congress, which most reckoned was the weakest, is still holding on. Pawar, facing rebellion from within, needs more than politics.

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The Unseen Factors

It would be naïve to interpret Maharashtra’s political drama without factoring in the power behind the politics. Pawar hosted, among other powerful people, the corporate czar Gautam Adani not once but twice at his Mumbai residence – once in April and then in early June. Adani’s proximity to the Prime Minister is only too well-known as is the Modi-Pawar personal equation. It cannot be a coincidence that Round Two of political realignments in Mumbai began soon after.

There is a growing school of thought that Sunday’s rebellion in the NCP is somehow linked to the other side of Pawar’s politics – commanding presence in the cooperative sector for which the state is well-known. From agriculture to dairy, micro-finance to banking and more, the cooperative sector has a wide and deep presence across the state with lakhs of people involved in its networks in one way or another.

The cooperative sector has also been the backbone of Maharashtra’s socio-political developments with many powerful cooperative bosses coming into their own as political leaders. This was once true of the Congress only but from the late Gopinath Munde to union minister Nitin Gadkari, most BJP leaders as well as NCP leaders have substantial presence in the cooperative sector. Given that it is harder to drive Maharashtra’s politics by communalisation alone, unlike in other communally-fragile states, there would have to be a different approach to cause disruption.

For the BJP and its key funders, what better than to hit at the cooperative networks, get a foothold in this seemingly impermeable market, and realign it towards increasing privatisation?

Also, the optics goes beyond Maharashtra and is pegged to the key meeting of opposition parties later this month. Pawar, seen as the patriarch with amiable relationships across the political divide, has been an important figure. With his own party in disarray, questions will be raised about his contribution to the opposition unity and to the larger task of his reaching out to other parties.

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How the Politics Stacks Up

The Pawar-Fadnavis war, in which the latter won the latest round by breaking away Pawar’s most trusted men, will recast the future of the state’s politics as well as that of the NCP. But what war is it in which the BJP seems to speak in two tongues: aggressive and hostile in the state, civil and occasionally friendly at the centre? In this conundrum may lie clues to understand the rebellion in the NCP and Ajit Pawar’s switch to the BJP government singing praises of Modi.

By now, it is understood well that the nine who took oath of office on Sunday face inquiries or cases by central investigating agencies. This modus operandi of the BJP, openly used for the second time in a year in Maharashtra, should have repelled people; instead, Fadnavis drew fulsome praise for this ‘mastermind’ tactic. If joining the government magically renders his men ‘clean’ and non-corrupt, Pawar would welcome it. There’s always a time for their home-coming later given the rapid pace of realignments underway.

In ‘breaking’ the Pawar family, the BJP has a lot to gain. Besides the optics of cutting Pawar down to size by virtually clearing the senior leadership within the party, the party now has a chance to field a Pawar against Pawar in their home borough of Baramati; Ajit Pawar’s son Parth is said to be the candidate to take on Supriya Sule in the 2024 Lok Sabha election. In other words, repeat the Amethi template, take away the home turf. But this may be easier planned than done.

Also, it helps the BJP if it keeps the two regional parties – Shiv Sena and NCP – which were more aggressive than the Congress all along, in a state of disarray, busy figuring out which faction is the party and slugging it out in the courts. Both in 2014 and 2019, the BJP was far from securing a simple majority on its own in the state assembly election despite great performance in the general election six months before.

The moves now must be read in the context of messing up the opposition to insure against the BJP's one’s lacklustre performance. The BJP broke the Sena last year to form the government that it wanted to, and repeated it with the NCP to steady the government if Eknath Shinde and his band of MLAs fall foul of the law. In the long run, it wants the Shiv Sena and NCP weakened; Pawar would like the Shiv Sena weakened despite his support to the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi.

That Praful Patel, whom Pawar had appointed as national working president only last month, was a key negotiator in recent developments and laughing away as Ajit Pawar and others took oath, is a significant sign that there is a lot more than what meets the eye. Pawar is far from finished; it follows that the NCP is too.

Pawar has done one too many political somersaults and masterminded too many strategies -- for power -- for the recent turn of events to strip him of his command.

(Smruti Koppikar, journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, politics, development, gender, and the media. She is also the Founder Editor of ‘Question of Cities’. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed in this article are that of the writer’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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