In Maharashtra’s ED political potboiler, Sharad Pawar has the last laugh

In Maharashtra’s ED political potboiler, Sharad Pawar has the last laugh

NCP chief Sharad Pawar used the ED controversy to turn himself from an accused to a victim and then to a victor, and in the process also galvanised his party’s cadres. 

Sharad Pawar

A file photo of the President of the Nationalist Congress Party Sharad Pawar | Twitter

Mumbai: The scenes that unfolded after the Enforcement Directorate’s case of alleged money laundering against NCP chief Sharad Pawar were akin to a political potboiler in which the 78-year-old veteran politician had the last laugh. He shrewdly transformed the situation to turn himself from an accused to a victim and then to a victor, and, in the process, galvanised his party’s cadres, who were demoralised after a humiliating Lok Sabha defeat and a string of defections.

He even wove senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar’s sudden resignation as MLA, potentially a cause of controversy, into his narrative — his nephew, “known to act impulsively,” was upset, hurt that Sharad Pawar’s name was dragged into the ED case, the NCP chief said.

“The BJP’s brahmastra (weapon with all the power in the universe) boomeranged and turned against the party. There are so many in BJP itself who should be under the lens of investigative agencies, but they chose to target Pawar saheb before the elections. Pawar saheb astutely handled the situation and it is politically backfiring on the BJP now,” said Vidya Chavan, a senior Mumbai-based NCP leader, who was present at the ED office in Mumbai Friday in protest of its action. 

The ED Tuesday filed a case of alleged money laundering against Sharad Pawar, Ajit Pawar and about 70 others from across parties, mostly from the Congress and NCP, in connection with irregularities in the functioning of the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank.

While all others against whom the case has been registered were either directors or functionaries of the bank until 2011, the senior Pawar had no direct connection with the bank or the case

Sharad Pawar had addressed mediapersons Wednesday, saying he would voluntarily go to the ED office Friday at 2 pm and submit himself to scrutiny to cooperate with the investigation in every way possible. 

Also read: Sharad Pawar & Ajit Pawar face off once again, this time over NCP’s new saffron flags

The Friday potboiler

Mumbai woke up to a slightly tense Friday with the police blocking several roads and issuing prohibitory orders in parts of south Mumbai as throngs of Congress and NCP workers and Pawar’s supporters made their way to the ED office at Ballard Pier. This, despite Sharad Pawar having appealed to his supporters not to gather outside the ED office premises.

Also, in the run-up to Pawar’s scheduled ED visit, there were several protests across Maharashtra by NCP workers in his support.

Pawar said, “The decision taken is political, aimed at maligning the image of key opposition leaders and so I had decided to go and explain my stand. I had even given a written intimation regarding this to the concerned department. I got a reply last night. In the reply they have said, we haven’t called you for summoning, there is no need for you to come here and if we feel the need in the future, we will give you a prior intimation.”

Pawar added that the Mumbai police commissioner and additional commissioner of police reached out to him, expressing concerns over law and order getting out of hand with several NCP workers having hit the road.

“I have myself handled the home department in Maharashtra many times. So, it is not acceptable to me that law and order gets out of hand and the common man faces problems. So I have suspended my decision to go to the ED office today,” he said. 

In the process, Sharad Pawar gained the support and sympathy of not only opposition leaders, including former Congress president Rahul Gandhi and former PM Manmohan Singh, but also the BJP’s own ally, Shiv Sena. 

Speaking to a Marathi news channel in Delhi, Shiv Sena Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Raut said, “I am looking at all this from the point of view of elections. Those who know Pawar saheb or understand Maharashtra’s politics can say that without any reason this has been made a political issue.”

Raut said the Shiv Sena and Sharad Pawar have had differences of opinion, but “whenever something goes wrong in Maharashtra we stand behind each other. For example, when the ED summoned Raj Thackeray, Uddhav saheb said some things very positively”.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis washed his hands off the controversy. 

Speaking to the media Wednesday, Fadnavis said the state government does not believe in vendetta politics, and doesn’t have any role to play in this case as the ED is under the Union government.

“According to norms, any case where corruption relates to more than Rs 100 crore, the ED steps in to investigate. Accordingly, once the FIR was filed, the ED took up the matter,” Fadnavis added. 

Also read: Modi’s return spells end of the road for Sharad Pawar, the PM candidate forever

The family patriarch

By Friday evening, a fresh challenge was brewing for the NCP president — who has had to tackle defeat, defections and the ED case one after the other — when his nephew, Ajit Pawar, resigned as MLA all of a sudden without informing or consulting his uncle about the decision and went incommunicado. 

While there has never been an open rift between Sharad Pawar and his nephew, there has always been two clear power centres within the party in the form of the two leaders. There have been instances when the uncle and nephew have not been on the same page, the most recent being the use of saffron flag emblazoned with Chhatrapati Shivaji’s image in NCP rallies.

But before speculations in the political circles could attribute junior Pawar’s resignation to another possible feud between the two Pawars, Sharad Pawar addressed his second press conference of the day.

“I haven’t been able to speak to Ajit Pawar. I spoke to his children…He said it is intolerable that even a senior politician like kaka (uncle), which is what he calls me, can be made to face such a situation,” Pawar said.

The NCP chief said, “There are no differences within the Pawar family. In our family, the tradition has been that the word of the head of the family is considered final. Earlier, my elders used to take decisions. Now they aren’t here so my word is respected as final.”

Beleaguered NCP gets a campaign agenda 

Not only did Pawar emerge strong from the ED controversy, but he also managed to breathe a new lease of life in his beleaguered party. 

Over the past few months, the NCP cadres have been tepid, disenchanted with a dismal performance in the Lok Sabha elections in which the party won just four of Maharashtra’s 48 seats.

Moreover, after the Lok Sabha polls, a string of senior party leaders resigned from the NCP defecting to the BJP or the Shiv Sena. About a dozen senior leaders such as Jaidutt Kshirsagar, Ramraje Naik Nimbalkar, Sachin Ahir, Bhaskar Jadhav, Dhananjay Mahadik and others have walked out of the NCP and joined either the BJP or Shiv Sena in May.

“Everyone knows Pawar saheb has nothing to do with the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank case. If he had not voluntarily submitted himself to scrutiny, then whether the accusations are valid or not, the BJP would have gone to town talking about graft charges against the NCP president ahead of the election. He has managed to silence them by doing what he did,” a senior NCP leader, who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint. 

“The party cadres have also been energised now. The larger public is convinced that this government can use government investigative agencies to target people and the ED case against Pawar saheb has given us a strong agenda for the election,” he added. 

Also read: Ahead of Maharashtra polls, Congress has given up, but Sharad Pawar’s NCP still fighting