Why Uddhav Thackeray needs to watch out for Ajit Pawar, not Rahul Gandhi or Sharad Pawar

Why Uddhav Thackeray needs to watch out for Ajit Pawar, not Rahul Gandhi or Sharad Pawar

Rahul Gandhi may be distancing himself from Maharashtra’s Covid struggle & Sharad Pawar seems to be taking the lead, but the threat lies elsewhere.

File photo of Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray with his deputy Ajit Pawar | ANI

File photo of Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray with his deputy Ajit Pawar | ANI

New Delhi: There is no threat to the stability of Uddhav Thackeray government in Maharashtra, with or without Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s support, five senior leaders of the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), a three-party coalition, have told ThePrint.

These five included two each from the Shiv Sena and the Congress and one from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). These are the three parties that constitute the coalition,

The leaders are of the view that Thackeray need not fear Gandhi, for all his ideological hang-ups about the Shiv Sena, or NCP chief Sharad Pawar, whose every move — even a visit to the Raj Bhavan — raises curiosity and conspiracy theories in political circles. 

If at all, Thackeray needs to watch out for his deputy, the NCP chief’s nephew Ajit Pawar, whose decision to garland a portrait of V.D. Savarkar, who is considered the father of Hindutva, raised many eyebrows, said the above-mentioned Sena and Congress leaders.

One of the Shiv Sena leaders claimed it was Chief Minister Thackeray who had suggested to Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari that he had to meet Sharad Pawar to understand the current political and administrative dynamics. 

“There is no question of Pawar sahib becoming the CM again. Yes, there are some issues with the style of functioning of Uddhav Thackeray, but that’s not a big issue. Pawar sahib is always there to guide him,” said the NCP leader.

Also Read: Maharashtra govt’s crisis, and how only Sharad Pawar can salvage it now

Rahul Gandhi’s irrelevance in Maharashtra

MVA leaders are unanimous in their view that the Congress high command has lost the confidence of the majority of party MLAs, who, they say, wouldn’t think twice before jumping ship, if need be. 

“They know another four years or so of BJP government under (former chief minister) Devendra Fadnavis will finish the Congress in Maharashtra. They will be ready to defect as much to remain a part of the ruling coalition as to maintain their political relevance in Maharashtra,” said an influential Congress legislator. 

Asked if he thought as many as two-thirds of the Congress MLAs could be potential rebels (the minimum required to beat the anti-defection law), he said, “Two-thirds? I would say four-fifths.”  

Speculation about the stability of the Thackeray government in Maharashtra has been swirling right since the first day of his swearing-in, as Rahul Gandhi has been opposed to his veteran colleagues’ idea of joining hands with the Shiv Sena, an ideological foe. 

Senior Congress leaders, however, managed to convince Sonia Gandhi to join hands with the Sena to keep the BJP out of power from India’s commercial capital, which is known to contribute handsomely to the ruling party’s kitty.

It’s an open secret in Congress circles how Rahul Gandhi could never reconcile to the idea of being a Shiv Sena ally. He betrayed his discomfort this week when he said that the Congress was only “supporting” the Thackeray government, and not leading it. 

Coming as it did in the backdrop of Maharashtra emerging as the Covid hotspot in the country — contributing over a third of the coronavirus positive cases in India — Gandhi’s comment was construed as an attempt to distance the Congress from the Thackeray government’s Covid crisis management.

The Congress, with 44 MLAs, may be crucial to the MVA, which together has 154 members in the 288-member Maharashtra assembly. But Rahul Gandhi’s opinion about the Thackeray government doesn’t seem to matter much.

“He addressed just a couple of election meetings in Maharashtra and can’t claim any role in the victories of Congress candidates. If at all, the Congress MLAs owe it to Sharad Pawar, who led the opposition’s fightback in the elections,” said a former Congress minister. 

From being a junior partner with the Congress during their 15 years in power in Maharashtra from 1999 to 2014, the NCP emerged as a stronger force in the last assembly election. The NCP is working on the expansion of its areas of influence beyond western Maharashtra, at the cost of the rudderless Congress. MVA sources are convinced that of the three ruling partners, only the Congress is staring at a decline despite being a junior partner in the government — a familiar pattern from Tamil Nadu to Bihar, if one were to look at India’s political history.    

Also Read: Under CM Uddhav Thackeray, anti-migrant Shiv Sena has become their protector

Ajit Pawar’s ‘game plan’

The Maharashtra deputy chief minister’s decision to garland Hindutva ideologue Savarkar’s portrait, a first for a prominent NCP leader, raised many an eyebrow in the party. 

One of his party colleagues, mentioned above, sought to play down its significance: “We have never opposed Veer Savarkar although we don’t subscribe to his Hindutva philosophy. He is respected much in Maharashtra. I don’t know how and why he (Ajit Pawar) decided to garland his portrait but don’t read too much into it.”

Not many in the MVA are convinced about it, especially in the backdrop of how Ajit Pawar had launched an overnight coup last November to be sworn in as deputy CM along with Fadnavis as CM, while his uncle was in the process of finalising the contours of the MVA. 

The uncle and the nephew patched up later, but not before bringing to fore the widening rift in what used to be the close-knit Pawar family of Baramati, with common political and business interests. Ajit Pawar, according to NCP insiders, isn’t happy about how Sharad Pawar, as also his daughter Supriya Sule, has been promoting his grand-nephew Rohit Pawar at the cost of Parth (Ajit’s son). The question of Sharad Pawar’s political legacy also remains unsettled between his nephew and his daughter.

It is in this backdrop that the MVA leaders are looking askance at Ajit Pawar garlanding Savarkar’s portrait. They believe it was meant to send out a message to the BJP as also the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). 

A senior Congress leader and former Maharashtra chief minister believes that Ajit Pawar is keeping his options ready “in the event of a power-tussle in the NCP or in the MVA at any point in future”.

Also Read: Maharashtra paying a price in Covid because Uddhav Thackeray and Rahul Gandhi stole mandate