Mumbai: The demands for a CBI probe into the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput have shed light on the increasing friction between Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and his nephew and Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar.
The immediate trigger was a letter written by Parth Pawar, son of Ajit Pawar, to Maharashtra Home Minister and fellow NCP leader Anil Deshmukh, demanding a CBI probe into Rajput’s death. The Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition whose ‘mentor’ is Sharad Pawar, is staunchly opposed to the case being taken over by the CBI.
Parth’s demand drew an uncharacteristically sharp retort from Sharad Pawar, who called him “immature” Tuesday morning, and told TV channels: “We do not care about Parth Pawar’s opinion. We stand firmly behind the Maharashtra government and the Mumbai Police.”
The mid-morning anger resulted in Ajit Pawar arriving at his uncle’s residence late Tuesday evening to “clear the air”. Sources said Sharad Pawar’s angry outburst was also a warning to Ajit Pawar to rein in his son, who has been tweeting opinions contrary to that of his grand-uncle.
Political analyst Pratap Asbe, who has been associated with Sharad Pawar for over three decades, felt the outburst was out of character. “He has always been composed even when speaking of adversaries. His outburst indicates that he is very angry. It is a message to Parth Pawar to fall in line with the party’s stand, and also to Ajit Pawar to rein in his son,” said Asbe.
Days before this, on 5 August, Parth had hailed the bhoomi pujan for the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya, which Sharad Pawar had opposed, saying it “would not kill the coronavirus”.
Today is a historic day. Bhoomipoojan at Ayodhya today will be etched as civilisational awakening for Bharat. However, we need to steadfastly safeguard the secular fabric of our nation. We need to be gracious in this cultural victory. #JaiShreeRam
My thoughts: pic.twitter.com/pxhVyJS8rA
— Parth Pawar (@parthajitpawar) August 5, 2020
ThePrint reached Sharad and Ajit Pawar for comments about this report through calls and text messages, but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
Growing chasm between uncle and nephew
Sharad Pawar has been driving the MVA since its formation last winter, and his party holds the Home portfolio in the Maharashtra government. Chief Minister and Shiv Sena head Uddhav Thackeray is in constant touch with the NCP chief, whom he considers his mentor.
According to MVA sources, this has pushed Ajit Pawar to the sidelines and reduced the post of the Deputy CM to a “mere decoration”. Since the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in March, Ajit has stayed away from Mumbai and Mantralaya, the seat of the government, and hasn’t had too many meetings with the CM.
The chasm between Sharad and Ajit Pawar has widened in recent months, and sources in his party call the latter a “ticking time bomb”.
“A public ticking off of his son will have wider ramifications. Like his uncle, he is a crafty politician and will bide his time,” said a source.
The relationship went sour when Ajit joined hands with BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis and was sworn in as Deputy CM before sunrise on 23 November last year, at a time when Sharad Pawar was stitching together a coalition with the Shiv Sena and the Congress Party.
The move had dealt a huge blow to Sharad Pawar’s credibility, and created a major trust deficit between the uncle and nephew.
However, NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal dismissed the speculation of a “power struggle” in the Pawar household, and told the media all was well between uncle and nephew.
Relationship was already cooling
Although Sharad Pawar has been a mentor and guide to Ajit, the relationship had begun cooling even before the events of last November, said sources close to both leaders. Now, Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, MP from Pawar’s old constituency of Baramati, is his political heir.
“Ajit dada feels that he is politically restricted. It is Pawar saheb who brought him into politics, but now his political course is being blocked. Saheb has always chosen someone else over dada, who is capable of being the chief minister,” an NCP legislator told ThePrint, adding that while Sharad Pawar “extended his support to dada, he was also restrained in his support”.
The hot-and-cold nature of the relationship can be traced back to the 1990s, when Ajit Pawar had just begun ascending the political ladder. Although he was keen to dominate Pune’s political arena, but Sharad Pawar, then with the Congress, supported Suresh Kalmadi, who emerged as a strongman.
When Sharad Pawar broke away from the Congress and established the NCP in 1999, Ajit was among a group of strong, emerging leaders. “Chhagan Bhujbal, Jayant Patil, R.R. Patil, Sunil Tatkare and Vijaysinh Mohite Patil were groomed as strong second-rung leaders who grew as counter-weights to Ajit dada,” said the legislator quoted above.
The same year, when the Congress and NCP formed a coalition government in Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar conceded the CM’s post to the Congress, even though Ajit Pawar was interested in it. Vilasrao Deshmukh took charge, and to add insult to Ajit’s injury, NCP’s Bhujbal was named the deputy CM. Even after Bhujbal resigned from the post twice due to political controversies, Ajit was never considered.
Then in 2010, when Ashok Chavan stepped down as CM over allegations in the Adarsh Society scam case, Ajit again wanted the chair and the NCP had got more seats than the Congress, so his dream could have been achieved, said a second senior NCP leader.
Instead, “sensing a power struggle Sharad Pawar conceded the post” to the Congress again, making Prithviraj Chavan the CM and Ajit his deputy. This leader said it was “not fair” that the senior Pawar kept pushing Ajit to the deputy’s post when “he is capable” of being CM.
Clipping of wings led to dissent
NCP insiders said this repeated clipping of wings sowed the seeds of dissent and disgruntlement in Ajit Pawar. Considered to be tempestuous, finicky and impulsive by nature, he has often put his uncle in embarrassing spots — such as on 8 April 2013, when he ridiculed a farmer sitting on a hunger strike demanding better management of the available water resources in a drought-hit district.
“From where will we give him water? Should we urinate in the dams?” Ajit Pawar had said, leading to a huge uproar across Maharashtra, for which Sharad Pawar was forced to apologise.
The uncle and nephew’s differences came out into the open in the lead-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when Ajit was keen on a ticket for his son Parth from Maval seat in Pune district. Sharad Pawar didn’t want the greenhorn Parth in the fray. But Ajit insisted on his son contesting the elections, so Sharad Pawar decided to abandon his original plan of contesting from Madha constituency.
Parth lost Maval by over two lakh votes, which challenged the notion of the Pawars’ electoral invincibility.
“Saheb was upset with Parth’s loss while dada felt the NCP workers had not worked hard for his son’s victory. Then he went and joined Devendra Fadnavis. There seems to be a lot of anger between the two of them,” said a third NCP leader.
Then, another of Sharad Pawar’s grand-nephews, Rohit Rajendra Pawar, was elected from the Karjat-Jamkhed assembly constituency in the Maharashtra polls later in 2019. “Dada feels Rohit is being promoted by saheb while Parth is being sidelined,” said another party source.
However, the source added: “This chapter has not ended here. Dada will react. He will wait, but some reaction is certain.”