The suspension of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) State president Jayant Patil for the better part of the Winter Session of the Maharashtra Assembly session and the perceived ‘softness’ of Patil’s party colleague Ajit Pawar (who is Leader of Opposition) towards the ruling Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis dispensation has again brought tensions within the Sharad Pawar-led party to the fore.
Mr. Ajit, known for his outspoken talk, has long had a chequered career within the NCP.
Be it his 2012 resignation or his 2019 short-lived ‘alliance’ with BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, Mr. Ajit’s unpredictability has startled not just party bigwigs but has had reverberations for the politics of the state as well.
The rift between Mr. Patil, a seven-term MLA from Sangli’s Islampur-Walwa constituency who is believed to be a Sharad Pawar loyalist, is also reflective of a potential struggle for control of the NCP after Mr. Sharad Pawar’s exit.
Again, Mr. Ajit’s ‘friendship’ with BJP leader and Deputy CM Fadnavis has led his detractors and ‘Maha Vikas Aghadi’ partners (the Congress and the Thackeray-led Shiv Sena faction) to accuse him of not being ‘forceful’ enough on the ruling Shinde-Fadnavis government.
According to observers, Mr. Ajit’s ‘aggression’ in cornering the Shinde-led Sena- BJP coalition has been fitful at best.
“The Opposition ideally could have made a big issue of Mr. Patil’s resignation, but the necessary momentum from Mr. Ajit was absent. No wonder it prompted a call from Mr. Sharad Pawar to his nephew,” said a Mumbai-based analyst.
According to him, Mr. Sharad Pawar was in favour of making Mr. Patil the Opposition leader but that the move was precluded by Mr. Ajit, who seized the position for himself.
The ‘bonhomie’ between Shinde-Fadnavis and Mr. Ajit was further cemented when CM Shinde offered a government airplane to fly the latter to Mumbai (from Nagpur) on Wednesday to welcome former Minister and senior NCP leader Anil Deshmukh, who stepped put of prison after more than a year.
Whilst being known an efficient administrator and tough taskmaster, Mr. Ajit has also been the ‘stormy petrel’ of the NCP.
His past actions of attempting to demonstrate his influence within the party have required all of Mr. Sharad Pawar’s iron will to rein in his recalcitrant nephew.
In September this year, Mr. Ajit set political rumour mills abuzz by not speaking at the NCP’s national convention in New Delhi and abruptly exiting the dais in front of his uncle Mr. Sharad Pawar and other senior NCP leaders when Mr. Patil got up to speak.
Later, he strenuously refuted suggestions that he had deliberately skipped speaking because he was ‘upset’ with the party.
In 2012, Mr. Ajit had plunged the Maharashtra government (of the Congress-NCP coalition) in turmoil after he dramatically resigned. As many as 20 NCP ministers had submitted their resignations to Congressman Prithviraj Chavan, the then Chief Minister. His resignation had come after allegations of irregularities in his grant of project approvals totalling ₹20,000 crore when he was State Water Resources Minister.
However, after barely 72 days, Mr. Ajit was ‘reinstated’ as Deputy Chief Minister in late 2012 after a government White Paper on irrigation projects gave him a ‘clean chit’.
Then in 2019, soon after the conclusion of the Maharashtra Assembly elections, Mr. Ajit had startled the State with his intra-party ‘rebellion’ when he staged a coup on the morning of November 23 and was sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister, with the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis taking oath as Chief Minister.
After Sharad Pawar’s iron hand had prevailed and the party failed to split despite his nephew’s (Ajit Pawar) temporary defection, the latter had resigned as Deputy Chief Minister in less than 80 hours.
But Mr. Ajit was sworn-in again as the Deputy CM in the tripartite Uddhav Thackeray-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition (of the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress).
Speculation about the NCP post-Sharad Pawar being split into two – one under his daughter Baramati MP Supriya Sule and the other under Mr. Ajit – is nothing new.
The edginess between uncle-nephew relations cropped up again after Mr. Ajit was reportedly unhappy about senior Pawar not wholeheartedly endorsing his son Parth Pawar’s candidature for the Maval Lok Sabha seat ahead of the 2019 general election.
Despite Mr. Ajit pulling out all stops for ensuring his son’s victory, Parth Pawar crashed by a margin of over 2.15 lakh votes, losing the Maval contest to Shiv Sena’s Shrirang Barne.
Then, in a rare instance of publicly snubbing a family member, the NCP patriarch in August 2020 had called Parth ‘immature’ and someone whose words were not to be taken seriously.
“While the BJP now have got Mr. Shinde’s breakaway Sena faction on their side, they currently have no plans to accommodate Mr. Ajit. Yet, it naturally helps them if they have a ‘soft’ leader heading the Opposition who has the potential to cause a schism in the strongest Opposition party, which is the NCP,” said another observer.