MUMBAI, Maharashtra — On November 23, Maharashtra woke up to a shock: Devendra Fadnavis of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had taken oath as Maharashtra chief minister at the governor’s house in Mumbai in the presence of a few BJP leaders, officials and a sole cameraman from ANI.
Curiouser still was the presence of Ajit Pawar, the then Nationalist Congress Party’s legislative party leader and nephew of NCP founder Sharad Pawar, who had rebelled against his uncle by supporting the BJP.
Three days later, Ajit flipped again. On November 26, he submitted his resignation to Fadnavis, citing personal reasons, and backed out of the alliance. By the evening, Fadnavis had resigned as well, 80 hours into his second tenure as Maharashtra’s Chief Minister.
Ajit was publicly welcomed back into the NCP. But — after a long political career defined by his attempt to creep out of his uncle’s long shadow — the events of the past week may have drawn the curtains on the mercurial 60-year-old.
With the Pawars tightlipped, it was left to the BJP to announce Ajit’s graceless exit.
“Ajit Pawar conveyed to the Chief Minister that he is going to retire from politics,” BJP spokesperson Girish Vyas told HuffPost India.
Nothing is certain in politics, of course. The Pawar family has welcomed him back, and now reports say Ajit Pawar may get back the NCP’s legislative party leader post and be made a cabinet minister in the new government.
But his colourful, always unpredictable journey — which began in the twilight of the Indira Gandhi years, and has hit a major roadblock in Narendra Modi’s heydey — serves as a metaphor for the twists and turns of Indian politics over nearly 40 years.
From junior minister to deputy CM
The son of Sharad Pawar’s elder brother Anantrao, Ajit began his political career in 1982 when he was elected to the board of a cooperative sugar factory in Western Maharashtra.
The Pawars have long used the state’s sugar cooperatives as a springboard to national politics, and Ajit was no different. Ten years later, he won the Baramati Lok Sabha seat in 1991, but vacated it for his uncle Sharad Pawar. In the same year, he won the by-elections from Baramati’s assembly seat — a seat he has held ever since.
In the early 1990s, as national politics was roiled by the ascent and descent of V.P. Singh, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the rise and fall of P.V. Narasimha Rao, liberalisation and coalition politics, Ajit stayed steady as a junior minister in the Congress state government in Maharashtra.
By the end of the decade, when Sharad Pawar broke away from the Congress to form the NCP, only to ally with the Congress to form a coalition government in Maharashtra, Ajit followed suit and was rewarded with a cabinet ministership in 1999.
“He has been fasting for the last 55 days. If there is no water in the dam, how can we release it? Should we urinate into it?”Ajit Pawar in 2013, speaking about a drought-hit farmer on a hunger strike
But it was five years later, in 2004, that Ajit made his first move out of Sharad Pawar’s shadow when he openly opposed his uncle’s decision to give the Congress the Chief Minister’s post in Maharashtra despite the NCP winning more seats in the assembly elections.
His entreaties went unheeded: the Congress’s Vilasrao Deshmukh as sworn in as Chief Minister, while Ajit was a cabinet minister.
In 2009, Ajit outmaneuvered Chhagan Bhujbal and became Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister. Over the 15 years from 1999 to 2014, he held important portfolios such as irrigation, rural development, and finance in successive Congress-NCP governments.
But he often attracted attention for the wrong reasons. In 2012, he resigned as Deputy Chief Minister without telling anyone, only to return a few months later. The next year, Ajit triggered a massive row by mocking a drought-hit farmer who had been on a hunger strike to demand more water for his crops.
“He has been fasting for the last 55 days. If there is no water in the dam, how can we release it? Should we urinate into it?” Ajit said at a public rally.
By 2014, Ajit’s name kept cropping up in the Rs 70,000 crore irrigation scam — a scam that is yet to be proved, but formed the basis of the BJP’s 2014 assembly election campaign.
That same year, he threatened to cut off the water supply of some villagers in Baramati Lok Sabha seat if these villages did not vote for his cousin Supriya Sule.
Throughout the period of his party’s government in Maharashtra, Ajit Pawar never tried to hide his ambitions for the state’s top post. But Sharad Pawar never allowed him to grow beyond a point.
“When Sharad Pawar decided to induct Chatrapati Shivaji’s descendant Udayanraje Bhosle in NCP, Ajit Pawar was livid. He had walked out of a party meeting expressing anger over his uncle’s actions,” said an NCP leader, adding that Bhosle was inducted only to curtail Ajit Pawar’s increasing following in Satara district.
When Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya made her electoral debut in 2009, Ajit was rumoured to be unhappy but the cousins have always shown bonhomie, at least in front of the media.
What triggered Ajit Pawar’s revolt?
To avoid a power tussle, Sharad Pawar had brought about an undeclared understanding inside the party and family. Supriya Sule was to act as NCP’s face in Delhi while Ajit was to work in the state, but Pawar never made Ajit the state president of the NCP.
But it was the quiet entry of another Pawar in 2017 that made Ajit Pawar anxious.
Rohit Pawar, the grandson of Sharad Pawar’s elder brother Appasaheb, made his electoral debut in 2017 when he got elected to Pune Zila Parishad.
Feathers were ruffled as Ajit’s son Parth Pawar was also planning to enter politics.
“Ajit Pawar’s family—his wife Sunetra and son Parth—are both extremely politically ambitious. It is Sunetra who controls the household,” an NCP leader close to Pawar family told HuffPost India.
Sunetra Pawar is the sister of former NCP MP from Ahmednagar, Padmasingh Patil, who joined the BJP earlier this year.
The family rift began to widen when Parth insisted on contesting the Lok Sabha election earlier this year. Parth was given a ticket from Maval Lok Sabha seat, a seat Sharad Pawar was considering. Sharad Pawar did not contest, saying two members from a family are enough in an election.
To Parth’s annoyance, his cousin Rohit took to social media and requested his grandfather to reconsider his decision.
“I find it very stupid. If you want to speak to your grandfather, you would pick up the phone and call him. You don’t write that on Facebook,” Parth Pawar had told HuffPost India in July this year.
Supriya Sule sought to contain the fallout by putting up a photo of Rohit and Parth on social media.
As it turned out, Parth lost his election — earning the dubious honour of becoming the first Pawar to lose an election.
When Sharad Pawar turned the tables on the Enforcement Directorate by offering to appear before it in September, the news cycle was consumed by all things Pawar, but Ajit was conspicuous by his absence.
This year, when it became clear that Rohit was likely to contest the 2019 assembly polls from Karjat-Jamkhed seat, a constituency adjacent to Ajit Pawar’s Baramati seat, the divisions within the family became apparent.
Rohit’s frequent media appearances with Sharad Pawar only added to Ajit’s unease.
The media picked up on this: Would Rohit Pawar wrest the mantle that Ajit had always coveted?
In a programme on a Marathi TV channel, Ajit Pawar was asked why Rohit is seen with Sharad Pawar and not Parth.
“I’ll go home and ask Parth why doesn’t he appear with his grandfather,” Ajit replied.
When Sharad Pawar turned the tables on the Enforcement Directorate by offering to appear before it in September, the news cycle was consumed by Pawar, but Ajit was conspicuous by his absence.
He had secretly submitted his resignation as an MLA from Baramati and gone incommunicado.
The next day, he appeared in a press conference with tears in his eyes and apologised to everyone who was pained by his action.
A political observer close to NCP had told this reporter that Ajit was in a rebellious mood and contemplating jumping to the BJP but Sharad Pawar had pacified him.
Out of patience
When the 2019 assembly election results were declared, Rohit emerged as a giant killer.
He had defeated Ram Shinde, a cabinet minister in Devendra Fadnavis’s cabinet by a comfortable margin of over 43,000 votes from a difficult seat and was seen as Sharad Pawar’s rightful heir in the NCP stronghold of Western Maharashtra.
But with BJP still short of the majority mark, the Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP began discussing government formation.
According to an Indian Express report, Ajit Pawar had backed the idea of aligning with the BJP in an NCP meeting on November 17 but Pawar senior shot down the proposal.
If some BJP sources are to be believed, Devendra Fadnavis had opened a channel of negotiations with Ajit Pawar even before the election as the rift within the family was appearing clearly.
Ajit Pawar sided with the BJP within hours of Sharad Pawar announcing that Uddhav Thackeray would be the next CM.
“BJP got the timing right. Ajit Pawar’s unhappiness with being continuously sidelined in NCP was visible and Rohit’s emergence followed by his son’s defeat in the Lok Sabha polls had complicated the family equation. Fadnavis is too clever to miss out on such an opportunity. It’s a shame that Ajit Pawar could not stick to his stand. We should not have forgotten that he is a sentimental person,” a BJP MLC told HuffPost India on Monday on condition of anonymity.
According to some Congress leaders who were privy to the negotiations between the NCP, Congress and Shiv Sena, Ajit Pawar was hoping to get the post of CM in case the NCP and Shiv Sena agreed to share the post for half through the tenure, or at least the deputy CM post.
“But when Pawar indicated that the NCP Maharashtra chief Jayant Patil will be made deputy CM in a government led by Shiv Sena, Dada was out of patience,” a working president of Maharashtra Congress said.
The timing of Ajit Pawar’s revolt strengthens this Congress working president’s contention.
Ajit Pawar sided with the BJP within hours of Sharad Pawar announcing that Uddhav Thackeray would be the next CM.
A revolt that backfired
MNS chief Raj Thackeray once told some senior journalists in Mumbai that he would never have dared to revolt if Sharad Pawar were his uncle.
The events over the past few days suggest there is wisdom in Thackeray’s words.
Within minutes of Ajit Pawar supporting BJP, Sharad Pawar made it clear that he was against Ajit Pawar’s decision.
By 12.30 pm on November 23, Sharad Pawar went public with Uddhav Thackeray by his side and assured NCP, Shiv Sena and Congress workers that he would work for the formation of non-BJP government.
While BJP leaders felt they could rely on Ajit standing firm, Sharad Pawar sent a convoy of leaders to convince his nephew to return.
Supriya Sule also made an emotional appeal to Ajit and appeared before media with tears in her eyes.
As pressure mounted, Ajit and his son Parth found themselves backed into a corner.
“We are one and always will be one so don’t listen to people. Some people are angry and that’s fine. Everything will be fine in a day or two,” Parth told this reporter on Sunday.
When Ajit Pawar aligned with the BJP on November 23, the NCP office at the YB Chavan Centre in Mumbai echoed with a cry never heard in his long career. “Ajit Pawar murdabad.”
Meanwhile Sharad Pawar upped the ante. In a joint meeting of Shiv Sena Congress and NCP MLAs, he was at his combative best.
“This is Maharashtra. This is not Goa or Manipur. Some people are trying to spread a message that the MLAs not following Ajit Pawar’s whip will be disqualified. That’s not correct. How can a person who has been sacked from that position issue a whip? I personally take responsibility that your membership of the House will not be in any danger,” Pawar assured the MLAs.
Ajit’s fall from grace has fixed many of Sharad Pawar’s problems in one go.
In last 80 hours, NCP has rid itself of a politician who had corruption allegations, the claims of Supriya Sule and Rohit Pawar have no contest in the party now, and even the opportunistic NCP-Congress-Shiv Sena alliance appears holier than ever, thanks to Ajit’s perfidy and the BJP’s manipulation of state institutions.
Although he took oath as an MLA on Wednesday, Ajit Pawar’s future in Maharashtra politics appears bleak. The same goes for Parth, who was by his father’s side through the episode.
The vicissitudes of Indian politics mean no one can ever be counted out, but when Ajit Pawar aligned with the BJP on November 23, the NCP office at the YB Chavan Centre in Mumbai echoed with a cry never heard in his long career. “Ajit Pawar murdabad.”