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HomePoliticsHow NCP's Ajit Pawar has remained politically relevant year after 'midnight coup'

How NCP’s Ajit Pawar has remained politically relevant year after ‘midnight coup’

On 23 November 2019, Ajit Pawar was sworn in as Maharashtra's deputy CM under a BJP govt led by Fadnavis. A year later, he still holds the post, but in a Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress govt.

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Mumbai: On 22 November 2019, several newly-elected legislators from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) got a message saying they have been called for a meeting by party leader Ajit Pawar. By the morning of 23 November, many of them found themselves at Maharashtra’s Raj Bhavan, unsure of what was happening, only to witness a swearing-in ceremony of their own government with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar.

By evening, almost all these NCP legislators had distanced themselves from the ‘overnight coup’, as it came to be known, and the Fadnavis-Ajit Pawar government fell within 80 hours. However, NCP president Sharad Pawar’s nephew remained firmly in the limelight as the brains behind the political machinations that brought the Pawar family feud to the fore.

A year later, Ajit Pawar, MLA from the Pawar bastion of Baramati, is still Deputy Chief Minister, but with the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government.

However, even as the unnatural three-party coalition has dominated the national political headlines, this time Pawar junior has chosen to largely stay away from the political glare, keeping all doors open, biding his time and in the meanwhile, consolidating his strength.

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No strong political ideological stances

Political commentator Hemant Desai said, “In the past year, neither has Ajit Pawar been seen criticising the BJP, nor has the BJP criticised Ajit Pawar. At the same time, he has maintained good relations with the Shiv Sena too and kept his following within the NCP intact.”

He added, “He is keeping all his options open to boost his own power in a post Sharad Pawar era, when age eventually forces the NCP chief (to) take a backseat from active politics.”

In his fourth stint as deputy CM, 61-year-old Pawar has neither made any strong political ideological statements, in line with his party’s views, on pressing issues such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or even the tug of war over actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death probe, nor been dominantly in the public eye.

On the CAA that had seen widespread protests across the country this year, Pawar had said there is no need for the Maharashtra assembly to pass a resolution against it, as it will not take away anybody’s citizenship. NCP President Sharad Pawar as well as the party’s ministers in the cabinet had expressed concerns over the CAA.

On the political slugfest over Rajput’s death probe, the deputy CM was silent though senior MVA politicians were making statements slamming the BJP’s demand for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe and defending the Mumbai Police. Ajit Pawar didn’t comment even when his son, Parth Pawar, angered the NCP leadership by backing the BJP’s demand.

One of the few times Ajit Pawar did speak strongly was when he urged the Centre to raise loans from the market to pay goods and services tax (GST) compensation to states.

As deputy to two Congress CMs during the Congress-NCP rule from 1999 to 2014, Ajit Pawar was often accused of undermining his party’s ally. But as deputy to CM Uddhav Thackeray, he hasn’t been overly vocal. He has neither addressed many press conferences nor accompanied Thackeray on the latter’s few official tours. On such occasions, the CM’s son, Aaditya Thackeray, a cabinet minister, has been in tow.

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Silent, cryptic politicking

An NCP functionary who did not wish to be named said, “Ajit Pawar saheb has focused mainly on the Pune district, the infrastructure projects there, the Covid situation there. He has stayed away from any controversial comments about the MVA alliance, coordination within it or on the chief minister’s style of functioning. But, he has silently sent the signs to whoever he wanted to.”

The NCP leader was referring to a particular photo that the deputy CM had tweeted along with his birthday wishes for CM Thackeray in July.

Ajit Pawar had tweeted a photo of him and the CM sitting in an open-top car flanked by a few other politicians, actor Aamir Khan and security personnel. What made the tweet suggestive was the fact that Pawar was behind the steering wheel of the car while Thackeray was in the passenger seat.

The tweet came hours after Saamana, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, published an interview with Thackeray in which he equated the MVA government — comprising the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress — to a three-wheeled rickshaw, with him in the driver’s seat.

Similarly, Ajit Pawar’s move to garland a portrait of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, a Hindutva ideologue, at Mantralaya on his 137th birth anniversary in May had raised many eyebrows in political circles. The action had a double-barrelled meaning — pandering to the BJP, Pawar’s brief ally, while also giving the impression that there aren’t as many ideological differences within the MVA government as is made out to be, considering that the Shiv Sena has been demanding a Bharat Ratna for Savarkar.

In September, Ajit again stirred a controversy when he tweeted his tributes to Bharatiya Jana Sangh ideologue Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, a Hindutva icon and an inspiration for the BJP, only to delete the tweet later.

While speaking to a Marathi television channel, the deputy CM said, “We speak good about people who are no more and that is why I had tweeted. But in politics, we have to listen to our seniors.”

Sanjay Raut, a senior Shiv Sena functionary and Rajya Sabha MP, said, “These major leaders don’t handle their own social media. They give it to an agency. In any case, I don’t find anything wrong in paying respects to Deendayal Upadhyaya on his birth anniversary. He was a freedom fighter and has done a lot for the country. In fact, I don’t understand why he deleted the tweet later. That, in fact, created a controversy.”

Similarly, Ajit’s son Parth’s tweets on not just the Rajput death probe, but the Ayodhya Ram temple bhoomipujan and the Maratha quota issue, are being seen as furthering the BJP’s political agenda. The deputy CM’s lack of response to these also stirred political tension within the NCP.

Particularly, in response to Parth’s tweets about the Maratha reservation, Ajit Pawar on the sidelines of an event in Pune said, the young generation generally tweets and has the right to express their opinions, but this should not be seen as the party’s official stance.

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Uncle-nephew relationship, clout in NCP

While there has never been an open rift between Sharad Pawar and his nephew, there have always been two clear camps within the party owing allegiance to the two leaders.

The political events of the last one year seem to have further strained this relationship. However, none of this seems to have dented Ajit Pawar’s own clout within the NCP.

Several NCP legislators ThePrint spoke to, even those who had immediately distanced themselves from Pawar’s “revolt” last year, say all is well within the party and the deputy CM’s intentions even then were for the NCP’s best interests.

Dilip Bankar, NCP MLA from Niphad in the Nashik district, said, “There is no problem. Under Sharad Pawar saheb’s leadership the entire party is together. All MLAs are on good terms with Ajit Pawar. He has an important portfolio in the government, so all MLAs are in touch with him. He is working on his responsibility in expanding the party.”

Another rural MLA who did not wish to be named said, “I will not say a whole lot on this, but at that time all of us were with the NCP and Ajit dada was also with Pawar saheb and the NCP. If that midnight coup had not happened and the government had not been briefly formed, then the NCP would have never been able to come to power in its own right.”

He added that the governor’s office moved overnight to allow a swearing-in ceremony only because it involved the BJP. “For the Congress, NCP, Shiv Sena, the governor’s office would have taken its own time and by then, one doesn’t know what spanner the BJP would have put in the works,” he said.

It was due to Ajit Pawar’s undeniable popularity within the NCP that his uncle Sharad Pawar not only accepted him back with open arms, but also made him the deputy CM in the MVA government. Pawar’s daughter, Supriya Sule, NCP MP from Baramati, welcomed him back with a smile and a hug.

Anil Patil, NCP MLA from Amalner in Jalgaon, said, “Ajit dada has always been someone who likes to be among karyakartas and functionaries and that hasn’t changed. As finance minister now, he meets every MLA who goes to him. I have met him a number of times and have never had to return disappointed.”

While Ajit Pawar’s clout among the NCP MLAs is intact, his relation with his uncle seems to have become terser.

Political analyst Desai said, “One hardly hears Sharad Pawar praising Ajit Pawar the way he used to about his nephew being a grassroots leader.”

Sharad Pawar is seen as one of the main players pulling the strings of the MVA government and has CM Thackeray’s ear, making the deputy CM’s chair more of a decorative post.

Moreover, senior Pawar’s public reprimand of Ajit Pawar’s son, Parth slamming the latter’s comments on handing over the Rajput death probe to the CBI as “immature” was seen as snub to Ajit Pawar. Nephew Pawar had immediately rushed to his uncle’s residence to clear the air.

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