Mumbai: On 23 August, senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar, addressing a campaign rally in Maharashtra’s Parbhani district, declared that henceforth all NCP events will sport two flags.
The first would be the party’s flag — a tricolour with a clock in between — and the second a saffron flag with the image of Maratha king Chhatrapati Shivaji emblazoned on it.
After whispers, some from within the party, that the NCP may be trying to project a soft Hindutva image, party president Sharad Pawar laid the controversy to rest Monday, but in a manner that hinted that the two Pawars are not exactly on the same page yet again.
“Ajit Pawar took the decision about saffron flags in his personal capacity,” the senior Pawar said. “It is not a decision taken by the party.”
This says political analyst Hemant Desai is “in a way, a snub by Sharad Pawar against Ajit Pawar”.
“But then there have always been differences of opinion between the two,” Desai said. “There have been a few occasions where Sharad Pawar has expressed displeasure on Ajit Pawar’s manner of speaking such as when the latter made the comment about urinating in dams to fill them up.”
Pawar had back in 2013 tweeted an apology on his nephew’s behalf after the latter mocked a hunger strike by a drought-affected farmer, saying, “From where will we give him water? Should we urinate in dams?”
The senior Pawar had slammed the remark as “unwanted.”
The strife over saffron
Ajit Pawar’s directive to use saffron flags prominently in NCP rallies was perhaps aimed at wooing a large section of the Marathas, who were earlier NCP voters but have now been drawn towards the BJP, especially after the Devendra Fadnavis-led government’s decision providing them quotas in government jobs and education.
Political analysts and some party leaders say it also sends a message that the NCP too believes in the themes of ‘Hinduism’ and ‘nationalism’, which seem to have become the political flavour of the day. Moreover, the saffron flag has been extensively used by the Shiv Sena, which talks about Chhatrapati Shivaji as its icon. In the past, the party has also given the flag a communal undertone.
The saffron flags are not the only optics that the NCP has used to identify itself with Chhatrapati Shivaji. The NCP named its campaign, ahead of the state assembly elections due later this year, as the ‘Shivswarajya yatra’, and got newly-elected MP Amol Kolhe, a popular television actor best known in Maharashtra’s households for his role of Chhatrapati Sambhaji, Shivaji’s son, to lead the yatra.
“The only intention of using saffron flags was to show our commitment to having an administration like that of Shivaji Maharaj when he got all castes, all religions, including Muslims to unite under his saffron flag,” a senior NCP leader who did not wish to be named said. “The flag is not the property of the Shiv Sena.”
“Not every small decision about every rally and programme is run through Sharad Pawarsaheb. There are some decisions that we take on our own,” she added. “Now, if Pawarsaheb doesn’t approve of something, we don’t question it. There is no strife.”
A former NCP minister, who recently quit the party to join the Shiv Sena, said, “Frankly, the NCP should have taken this line much earlier. Over the past few years, the NCP has been seen as wavering on its ideology, first praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then criticising it, then offering support to the BJP in the state to form a government, then having a soft corner for Raj Thackeray. With all this, in a political atmosphere of hardcore Hinduism and nationalism, the NCP was getting isolated.”
This soft Hindutva projection, however, has not gone down well with the senior Pawar.
“Ideologically Sharad Pawar is more left-leaning and has a broader, more liberal ideology,” political commentator Desai said. “He always talks about including more Muslims, women. In his ideology, he is closer to the Congress. Whereas, Ajit Pawar has never expressed a particular ideology. He has an aggressive style of working and wants to expand the party.”
Uncle and nephew
While there has never been an open rift between Sharad Pawar and his nephew, there has always been two clear camps within the party owing allegiance to the two leaders.
Ajit Pawar, who holds the assembly seat of Baramati, the Pawar family’s home turf, has often made statements contradicting the NCP supremo. For instance, the former deputy CM praised the Modi government’s move to abrogate Article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir and called for making Pakistan-occupied Kashmir also a part of India.
Ajit Pawar’s statement was despite the NCP president expressing his disappointment at abolishing Article 370 without taking the people of Jammu & Kashmir into confidence.
Reportedly, there has always been a silent power tussle between Ajit Pawar and Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule and talks of Ajit rebelling against his uncle.
Recently, the senior Pawar’s decision to drop out of the Lok Sabha race and nominate Ajit Pawar’s son Parth Pawar from the Maval constituency was seen as a small victory for the nephew. Parth a, political novice, ultimately created the record of being the first Pawar to lose an election.
Earlier, in 2009, the nephew and uncle clashed with the former eyeing the deputy CM’s post, which Sharad Pawar gave to Chhagan Bhujbal. A year later, Ajit Pawar put up a show of strength securing the support of most of the NCP legislature party to coerce Sharad Pawar to appoint him as Maharashtra’s deputy CM, replacing Bhujbal.