The collapse of the 15-year-old Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance has thrown up new possibilities on Maharashtra's political landscape.
And, one of the most significant aspects of the change is the coming out of the shadows of NCP strong man Ajit Pawar. While it was an open secret that he nurtured chief ministerial ambitions, he himself also once said, "Why be the Deputy CM when you can be CM?"
However, given the multi-cornered contest that Maharashtra is set to witness on October 15, Pawar senses a real chance to stake a claim for the top job.
While NCP may or may not be able to get the numbers on its own, a strong performance will certainly help him play the role of a king maker at least.
Son of Anantrao Pawar, and nephew of the Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar, Ajit Pawar had worked his way up from the grassroots.
He entered politics in 1982 after a brief stint in the film industry. A keen learner, Ajit’s move to the top was swift. In 1991, he became the president of the Pune District Co-operative Bank. Soon he graduated to the bigger stage and was elected to the Lok Sabha from the Baramati constituency.
From being a minister in successive Congress governments in the state led by Sushil Kumar Shinde and Vilasrao Deshmukh to being Deputy CM in Prithivraj Chavan's cabinet, Ajit has been at the centre of political action in the state.
In 2004, when Sharad Pawar-led NCP secured more seats than the Congress, the veteran leader was offered the position of CM, but he had his eyes set on Delhi. His only daughter Supriya Sule was yet to be initiated into politics, and there was pressure within the NCP to choose the CM from among the party’s popular leaders. Ajit, then 45, was already a force to reckon with in the NCP; his only rival was the then PWD Minister Chhagan Bhujbal.
However, the Congress remained adamant on its demand for the CM's chair even though NCP had won more seats. Sharad Pawar relented, paving the way for the elevation Vilasrao Deshmukh as the chief minister and ending any hope for Ajit ro get the top job.
Now, post the split with Congress, Ajit Pawar, popularly known as 'dada', has once again rekindled his dream.
The gloves are off. Pawar, who has often trained his guns on Prithiviraj Chavan, is going all out to criticize his governance track record while offering a new dynamic style of functioning.
Ajit Pawar has vast experience and has handled critical portfolios like Irrigation department, rural development and finance portfolios. And as stated earlier, he also served as the Deputy Chief Minister in the incumbent government.
But Ajit Pawar himself has not been a man without controversies. There have been severe allegations that as Minister of Water Resources, he swindled crores in the name of irrigation though very little was done on the ground and that he spared no effort to help in the development of Lavasa, a project touted as a "vision of Sharad Pawar". It is another matter that no substantive evidence has ever come out about these wrong doings.
The NCP leader again courted controversy with his ‘urine’ remark to an activist fasting for 55 days in Maharashtra against the drought crisis. Ajit Pawar showed very bad taste when he quipped that: "If there is no water in the dam... Should we urinate in it?"
Under heavy political and media pressure, he had to finally apologise for his off the cuff comment. Even while campaigning for his cousin sister Supriya Sule during the General Elections 2014, Ajit Pawar had allegedly threatened to cut-off water supply to the village of Masalwadi, in Baramati constituency, if they did not vote for Supriya.
Ajit Pawar, who recently said that the NCP will be contesting the Assembly polls under the collective leadership and guidance of their tallest leader Sharad Pawar, faces a huge challenge to change the party's image of being a "Maratha-dominated party" and one with the maximum ministers facing corruption charges.
Another important factor which can influence the voters is the toll tax in the state. Although NCP has exempted two & three-wheelers, tractors and bullock carts from paying toll charges, people are demanding exemption of toll charges for light-motor vehicles and state transport buses.
The party also needs to focus on areas that will help expedite growth in rural areas and address issues arising out of rapid urbanisation in the state, especially in the face of the BJP mascot Narendra Modi making development his key selling point.
It will be October 19 soon and we will soon know the fate of NCP and, in turn, that of Ajit Pawar. There can be no two ways about it - the Maratha aspirant for the chief minister’s post would have his fingers crossed.