Four years after he was left red-faced post his failed attempt to form a government with the BJP and outsmarted by his uncle Sharad Pawar, Ajit Pawar has finally managed to wrest complete control of the NCP. After a seven-month long battle, the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Tuesday declared his faction the ‘real’ NCP.
The development has completely changed things for Ajit, who has always preferred to work behind the scenes. Until the split, Sharad Pawar was the indisputable face of the NCP. But from now on, Ajit will have to lead the party from the front and seek votes in his own name. He is also staring at the uphill task of delivering an impressive show in the two back-to-back elections slated for this year.
Absolute authority comes with responsibility and challenges, and there are a good number of challenges ahead of the 64-year old leader who was always desperate to come out of his uncle’s shadow and become chief minister of Maharashtra. To begin with, he will have to face the emotive issue of having isolated his own uncle. Soon after the EC verdict was announced, Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, national president of the Sharad Pawar-led faction, launched a personal attack on Ajit, saying that he had rendered her father homeless. “The house where you were born is in the name of your father. Are you going to oust your father?” she remarked.
Even if the BJP’s strategy for splitting the Shiv Sena and the NCP was the same, Ajit’s problem is more acute than that of Eknath Shinde since NCP founder Sharad Pawar is alive and very active. “CM Shinde and his leaders have been contending that Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray was a strong opponent of the Congress,” said a senior leader from the Pawar-led faction. “But in our case, Pawar saheb, the founder of the NCP, is alive and working as energetically as others. It would be difficult to counter him and create a narrative beneficial to them.”
The other issue being pointed out by NCP insiders is the grassroots connection. “It is true that the NCP cadre is divided between Pawar saheb and Ajit Dada, but as far as the grassroots connect is concerned, the network of Pawar saheb is still unmatched,” said an NCP insider. Ajit Pawar is also aware of this and thus was continuing to use Pawar’s name immediately after the split. “He understands the impact of the name but was forced to stop using it when his uncle objected and threatened to go to court,” emphasised the insider.
Pawar also commands respect in the politically significant Maratha community as well as various parts of Maharashtra, especially western Maharashtra. There have been several instances of his incontrovertible public appeal. Among the recent ones was the defeat of Udayanraje Bhosale, a descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji, in the 2019 by-election when he resigned as an NCP MP from Satara and joined the BJP. Pawar’s campaign in Satara—which included his famous speech in pouring rain—ensured the defeat of Bhosale.
“Even during the recent reservation agitations by Marathas, when politicians were being defied, Pawar’s grand-nephew Rohit Pawar was forced to stop his Yuva Sangharsh Yatra but Pawar continued his tours without any resistance,” pointed out another NCP insider.
Maharashtra is also going through rural distress, and the ruling parties are bound to face a backlash, which will again come as a challenge for Ajit Pawar’s leadership. To add to this, the opposition parties have been relentlessly emphasising that investments in the state are being moved to neighbouring Gujarat by the ruling coalition led by the BJP.
Leaders from the Ajit NCP have disputed many of these issues. They are of the view that the remaining leaders from the Sharad Pawar faction will also come to their side after the EC decision. “There are many MLAs and leaders who are in touch with us,” said Sanjay Tatkare, as state spokesperson of Ajit Pawar led NCP. “Many others were unsure about the outcome of this struggle. All have got clarity now and are expected to join us soon. This will give a further boost to the party.” In Maharashtra, the party has 53 MLAs and nine MLCs. Of them, 40 MLAs and five MLCs have sided with Ajit while Pawar’s faction has the support of 13 MLAs and four MLCs.
Running a party on his own is not new for Ajit Pawar, said a NCP senior leader. “He has been doing it for years now,” he said. “What has changed is that he is on his own and has to seek votes in his own name. But Ajit Dada is a hardcore politician and took a decision only after calculating all these risks. He is ready to fight for what he believes is his. He also knows that he has to face his own uncle in this fight over political legacy, which is likely to become ugly during the elections.”