An oft-used adage aptly defines the brand of politics mastered by the old warhorse of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar: What he thinks, what he says, and what he does are three entirely different things. A closer look at the upheavals in the state’s politics in the last few weeks suggests that the senior Pawar’s mentee and nephew, Ajit Pawar, has definitely taken a leaf or two from his uncle’s book.
A series of events and statements that had Ajit Pawar at the center of action created ripples in the state’s political waters. The leader of the opposition in the Vidhan Sabha hogged the limelight for contradicting his party's and the MVA’s (Maha Vikas Aghadi) stance and siding with the the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on a variety of issues:
A few days after the NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) supremo convened a meeting of leading opposition parties to discuss concerns over the credibility of electronic voting machines (EVMs), Ajit Pawar reposed his faith in the EVM and went to the extent of calling politicians raising questions on EVMs as sore losers who could not digest electoral losses
When the opposition parties in the state and across the country including senior figures like Uddhav Thackeray were cornering the BJP over the authenticity of PM, Modi's educational degree, Ajit Pawar scoffed at the degree controversy stating that people had voted for Modi based on his personal appeal and charisma, and hence it was unfair to focus excessively on his academic qualifications
The surprising exclusion of Ajit Pawar and his spouse’s name from the chargesheet filed by the Enforcement Directorate in the MSC bank scam case further fuelled the rumors of him striking a deal with the BJP
Pawar senior's questions on the efficacy of a JPC probe into the Adani-Hindenburg saga made observers wonder if Ajit had his blessings for any new venture with the BJP
Putting Rumors to Rest... For Now
Speculations peaked when Ajit left an MVA event midway and then went incommunicado for a few days. This disappearing act reminded political observers about Eknath Shinde’s vanishing act in July 2022 which eventually resulted in the dismissal of the MVA government and the disintegration of the Shiv Sena.
Reports about an Ajit Pawar-Amit Shah meeting in Delhi and Ajit having the backing of 35-40 MLAs who were willing to jump ship emerged, adding more credence to the theory. In his column in the Saamna, Sanjay Raut’s claim that Sharad Pawar had hinted at the possibility of individuals buckling under pressure and going across the aisle made it clear that all was not well within the tripartite alliance.
But breaking his radio silence on the issue and putting rumors to rest at least for now, Ajit Pawar on Tuesday lashed out at the “gossip mongering” and called reports of him switching to the saffron party with 40 odd MLAs as “baseless”.
Despite this outright dismissal of any realignment in Maharashtra politics, the events of the last few days have raised many questions. While Ajit Pawar has once again reaffirmed his allegiance to his uncle and the party, his refusal to quell these supposed “rumors” as soon as they emerged remains unexplained. The question, therefore, is if a deal between the BJP and Ajit Pawar was indeed on the cards, has the deal been put off for now or forever?
The Numbers Game
First and foremost, it is essential to understand why the need for a realignment in the existing political equations may have arisen for various stakeholders in the state. For the BJP, two reasons could explain their attempts to woo Ajit Pawar despite their not-so-pleasant previous experience of allying with him in 2019.
Firstly, the immediate threat, the reserved Supreme Court verdict on the batch of pleas relating to the disqualification of 16 Shinde camp MLAs hangs as a sword over the BJP. While the BJP alliance may still have the numbers if these MLAs are disqualified, it would have to rely on independents and smaller parties to sail through which would be a very risky endevour. In case the SC verdict does not go in favor of the ruling coalition, the BJP would probably resort to Ajit Pawar as their plan B.
The second reason, with respect to the bigger picture, is the long-term electoral prospects of the BJP in Maharashtra, especially in the battle for 2024. Maharashtra accounts for 48 seats, second only to Uttar Pradesh which sends 80 people to Parliament. In the last two elections, the NDA which then consisted of the undivided Shiv Sena and the BJP, swept the state winning 43 seats in 2014 and 42 seats in 2019. Staring at potential losses in other states and with no likely possibility of adding to its kitty by expanding in newer pastures, the BJP understands the importance of Maharashtra. Despite the Shiv Sena split into two, the fact remains that the BJP, which is up against a formidable tripartite alliance, continues to be on a sticky wicket. Shinde has the party name and the symbol but the party’s electoral efficacy is yet to be tested.
The Perception Game
Furthermore, right from the word go, the Shinde-BJP alliance has been on the back foot when it comes to perception and narrative management. Consider the Pannas Khoke, Aamhi Okay (with fifty cartons of cash, we are doing very well) jibe, or the recent deaths due to dehydration at the poorly managed Maharashtra Bhusan award ceremony. Uddhav and his faction, on the other hand, are steadily gaining sympathy, especially after losing the much-valued bow and arrow symbol. The average Shiv Sena voter has always been known to be overly sentimental and one to be swayed away by emotional appeals. Bal Thackeray mastered the act of emotional appeals and managed to resurrect the Shiv Sena on multiple occasions. This also explains why historically Shiv Sena leaders who defected to other parties have had very limited success.
Perhaps the BJP would like to wait till the municipal elections of October 2023 before taking a call on its alliance with Shinde. Considering that the municipal elections would be held in Mumbai, Thane, and Kalyan-Bhiwandi areas in and around Mumbai (strongholds for the Shinde Sena), if they fail to prove their electoral competency in the municipal polls that are to be conducted in the latter hald of 2023, the BJP with its eye on 2024 would inch closer to Ajit Pawar and discard its current ally.
Unlike the Shiv Sena rebels, the NCP rebels (and Congress) have had much greater success after switching to other parties. Most of these leaders have varied business interests, especially in the sugar co-operatives. So, voters who often have to rely on these local satraps for employment and economic benefits choose to, or rather have to, support these leaders wherever they go.
In a way, allying with a breakaway faction of the NCP led by Ajit Pawar would be a better prospect for the BJP, simply because their electoral credentials would not be relatively unknown as is the case for most MLAs in the Shinde camp.
The Shinde camp’s unease with the BJP-Ajit Pawar footsie is already out in the open with ministers and MLAs threatening to quit. Should a BJP-Ajit Pawar/NCP alliance become a possibility, Shinde and his MLAs would be left stranded in the middle of nowhere. Continuing in an alliance with the NCP/Ajit Pawar would be embarrassing as many of these MLAs had cited differences with NCP functionaries at the local level during the MVA days for jumping ship.
What Does Ajit Stand to Gain?
For Ajit Pawar who faces a number of charges and investigations, the opportunity of doing any kind of business with the BJP would be an immensely profitable political transaction. Besides, Ajit’s overtures to the BJP are also the consequence of the power struggle in the Pawar clan and the party, that is, between him and the NCP patriarch’s daughter Supriya Sule.
Even if one were to think that he is not seriously exploring the possibility of some understanding with the BJP, this may well be his way of haggling and negotiating to shoot up his stocks within the party and the family. Pawar senior’s wish to see Supriya Sule succeed her and Pawar junior's wish to transition from four-time deputy CM to CM are well known and the root of the friction within the NCP.
At best, an arrangement with the BJP could help Ajit become another Shinde, getting him a CM seat despite being the junior ally. This might be a price that the BJP could be willing to pay for an assured success in the LS 2019 polls.
Ajit has learned the tricks of the trade from his uncle, often described by his detractors as India’s forever PM-in-waiting and by his supporters as the best PM that India never had. Could Ajit, often called Maharashtra’s forever CM-in-waiting do one better than his uncle and get hold of the CM’s chair? More importantly, would he do it with or without the blessings of the NCP supremo? If it's the latter, in any case, it would not be the first instance of a Pawar outmaneuvering his own mentor.
(An alumnus of Mumbai’s St. Xavier’s College, Omkar is currently pursuing a Research Master's degree in Politics at Sciences Po, Paris. His research interests and publications focus on issues and themes like party politics and electoral competition in India, populism, Dravidian politics, voting behaviour, and representation of minorities in India’s lawmaking bodies. Currently, he is working on the ideological transition of the Shiv Sena in the post-Bal Thackeray era. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)