Baramati which has been the bastion of the Maratha heavyweight Sharad Pawar for years witnessed a shutdown and uproarious scenes today. Not of the usual NCP squad rallying around their party president. The focal point had shifted to another Pawar – Ajit, the nephew of the supremo.
Times, as they say, are changing.
An extended drama has been played out in Maharashtra since the shock resignation of Ajit Pawar as the Deputy Chief Minister as well as state’s Minister of Planning, Finance and Energy took everyone by surprise. Possibly the big daddy was thrown off the balance as well, though his lieutenants like Praful Patel would have us believe otherwise.
The immediate crisis was perpetrated by allegations of Ajit Pawar having cleared 38 water projects worth Rs 20,000 crore in an abnormal haste, without seeking the mandatory approval of the Vidarbha irrigation Development Corporation.
The Deputy Chief Minister said he wanted to take moral responsibility for his decisions and step down. The foremost question then arises is this: why has the resignation come now and not when these irregularities first surfaced? Or why not then when the strapping Maratha agreed to a white paper on the allocations? Why just before the white paper is about to be tabled?
The reasons could be several, but the timing is certainly very shrewdly calculated.
First, the best method of defence is offense. By stepping down before the tabling of the white paper which would have made him look bad, Ajit Pawar is leaving no room for his detractors to contrive an assault against him. They cannot weaken his position now by embarrassing him or calling for his resignation. On the contrary, a show of strength triggered by putting in his papers places him in a position of renewed power.
Second, Ajit Pawar looks like he has out manoeuvred his uncle. Ever since Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule has entered the political space, Ajit has been uncomfortable. Sensing that first blood will be thicker, family discontent has been discernable a la Thackerays dispute, except that the fissures are yet to come out in the open in a way to prompt a split. An uneasy truce had been worked out with Supriya managing Delhi and Ajit nurturing the state. What has emerged is the reality that the person who controls Maharashtra will call the shots. Because the party derives maximum brawn from the state, Ajit has been handed the additional advantage, though reluctantly.
This is not the first time that the nephew has pushed the senior Pawar into a corner. Earlier in 2010, when Sharad Pawar had favoured Chhagan Bhujbal for the Deputy CM’s post, Ajit had thrown a tantrum and all the MLAs of the party had thrown their weight behind him barring Bhujbal and his son. Sharad Pawar had buckled that time as well.
The ambitious nephew has been fostering hopes of becoming Chief Minister one day and that is third purpose that his resignation served. It completely disoriented the already rattled Congress at the state level as well as at the Centre, where Mamata has given it a bloody nose.
Ajit’s aversion of Prithviraj Chavan is an open secret. With 19 ministers tendering their resignations to state party chief Madhukar Pichad in a mark of solidarity, Ajit sent shockwaves in the Democratic Front government in Maharashtra and the UPA at the Centre. So much so that Sharad Pawar had to step in and douse the fire by repeatedly assuring of his party’s continued support to both the coalitions.
In addition, another 13 Independent MLAs threatened to withdraw support if Ajit Pawar discontinued in government. Of the total 288 seats in the Maharashtra Assembly, the DF government has a comfortable 171. Of these NCP constitutes 62, while Independents add another 27. NCP’s withdrawal or Ajit Pawar breaking away would have plunged the government into crisis as its numbers would have dipped well below the crucial 145 mid mark.
Chavan has in one stroke understood Ajit’s indispensability as well as his own vulnerability to one day possibly becoming a scapegoat. On previous occasions as well Ajit Pawar has been positioning himself as an alternative CM by taking a pro-active and highly visible role in day to day governance.
Even at the NCP headquarters, he has been maintaining a separate cabin for several years irrespective of his official position in the party.
Possibly the party cadre is sensing the changing times and preparing for the next generation of leadership to take over.
And so while Pawar has been known as a wily man and may ride over this minor tsunami, he has groomed a cleverer fox in his nephew and needs to watch out.