In the wake of the overnight political coup in Maharashtra, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) president Sharad Pawar told the press Saturday that his nephew Ajit Pawar’s decision to join the BJP-led government was “totally against the party” and only 10-11 party MLAs were with him.
The veteran Maratha leader was at pains to explain how he learnt about his nephew’s decision only Saturday morning, and how the NCP, the Congress and the Shiv Sena were still together and would form the government if the BJP failed to prove a majority in the assembly.
But not many political observers are convinced. They point to Sharad Pawar’s meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament Wednesday, ostensibly to discuss the farm crisis in Maharashtra. Earlier, addressing the Rajya Sabha, the PM had praised the NCP for maintaining decorum in the House and never protesting in its well, unlike other political parties, including his own.
NCP leaders also argue that if there had been any understanding between Modi and Pawar, the Prime Minister wouldn’t praise the party publicly, nor would they meet in Parliament openly under the glare of the media.
“Modi and Amit Shah wanted to create an impression that Sharad Pawar was in touch with Modi even as the BJP was trying to poach NCP MLAs,” said a party functionary.
Be that as it may, Opposition leaders have many questions about Pawar’s role. Here are five reasons why people are not ready to believe the senior NCP leader.
Pawar’s history of pragmatism in politics
The septuagenarian leader is well-known for not allowing himself to be strait-jacketed by political or ideological considerations. In 1978, after Indira Gandhi split the Congress, Pawar joined the other faction. After a fractured mandate in Maharashtra assembly election, the two factions of the Congress came together to deny power to the Janata Party.
Pawar became a minister in Vasantdada Patil government, only to bring it down four months later by engineering several defections — thereby, becoming the youngest chief minister of the state, at 38 years, with the support of the Janata Party.
In 1999, he launched a rebellion against Sonia Gandhi over her foreign origins and floated his own party, the NCP. The two parties were soon sharing power in Maharashtra and went on to rule for the next 15 years.
During the 2014 Maharashtra assembly campaign, Modi had termed the NCP, “Naturally Corrupt Party”. After the polls that produced a hung assembly, when the Shiv Sena dithered over joining a BJP-led government, Pawar was quick to offer his party’s outside support to the BJP “for a stable government and in Maharashtra’s interest”. The Sena read the political tea-leaves and immediately relented, leading to the formation of a BJP-Sena government.
Similarity between Maharashtra’s Pawars and Karnataka’s Gowdas
There is a striking similarity between what happened in Mumbai overnight Friday-Saturday and what happened in Bengaluru 13 years back. Former chief minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s son, H.D. Kumaraswamy, had then ‘split’ Janata Dal (Secular) to bring down the Congress-led coalition government and become chief minister with support from the BJP. Deve Gowda accused his son of betrayal. In subsequent months and years, both father and son took turns at expressing their unhappiness over being betrayed by the other. Both would soon come together as Kumaraswamy dumped his BJP ally and return, 20 months later, to the ‘secular’ bandwagon.
Like the Gowdas, the Pawars of Maharashtra are also a very close-knit family. They work closely together in running educational institutions, trusts and sugar cooperatives. It was Ajit Pawar who vacated the Baramati Lok Sabha seat to make way for uncle Sharad Pawar when the latter joined the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in the early 1990s. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Sharad fielded his grand-nephew and Ajit Pawar’s son, Parth, from Maval Lok Sabha seat and opted out of the race, saying that two of his family members (including daughter Supriya Sule) were already contesting elections. Though various stories have floated in the media about differences in the family, they have all proved to be rumours.
Denying rumours about a succession battle in the party, Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule has often categorically said that her cousin, Ajit Pawar, will be the NCP’s face in Maharashtra while she would represent the party in Delhi.
It is because of this background that few are willing to buy Sharad Pawar’s — or Supriya’s — contention that Ajit Pawar acted on his own to support the BJP in the state.
Cases against Pawar family and close aides
It’s ironical the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which was seen to be instrumental in reviving the Opposition’s fortunes by booking Sharad Pawar in a money-laundering case, and which Pawar used to project himself as a victim during the assembly polls — is now being seen as instrumental in the installation of Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra.
Apart from Pawar, many senior NCP leaders, including deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, former union minister Praful Patel, and senior leader Chhagan Bhujbal, among others, are under the scanner of various probe agencies for alleged corruption.
Sharad Pawar, 79, had used the ED case against him to project himself as a victim who was being targeted by the BJP-led government at the Centre to rally around the Marathas. But elections are over now. NCP leaders would like some respite in these cases, if not a closure.
Pawar’s equations with PM Modi
The two leaders may have been political and ideological rivals over the years, but they enjoy a great rapport. After Modi became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014, Pawar was the first leader from the Opposition camp to defend him on the 2002 post-Godhra riots in Gujarat. In an interview to NDTV, the NCP chief had argued that the court had exonerated Modi and so people had to accept it.
In February 2015, PM Modi visited Pawar’s home in Baramati to have lunch. He explained his visit by saying Pawar had “hand-held” and taught him “to walk in my early days in Gujarat”.
When Pawar was agriculture minister during the UPA regime, he was in regular touch with Modi and known to advise the then Gujarat chief minister on political and governance matters.
NCP’s political ambitions
Despite two decades of its existence, the NCP has remained largely confined to the western Maharashtra region, while the declining Congress retains a pan-state presence. Given that the NCP can’t breach the BJP’s and Shiv Sena’s core Hindutva-driven votebanks, its expansion in the state has to be at the cost of the Congress. That makes the NCP and BJP natural allies, regardless of the protestations of both about their presumed ideological differences.