What Does Ajit Pawar's Breakaway From the NCP – and Sharad Pawar – Really Mean?

With Sharad Pawar, there is never a straight line or an obvious explanation.

On the face of it, the sudden breakaway by Ajit Pawar and a large group of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) members is spurred by his own frustrations, but the larger objective is to sabotage the national opposition’s chances at the 2024 general elections.

Maharashtra is a prized state, not least because it is rich and its capital Mumbai is the wealthiest city in the country, but also because it sends 48 MPs to Parliament, second only to Uttar Pradesh. Despite running the government in the state, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was getting worried that it would lose a bulk of those seats and also lose to the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi – a combine of the Uddhav Thackeray Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Congress – in the state elections scheduled next October.

This would affect its national tally and therefore the MVA had to be broken. Part one of the plan was to break the Sena, and this was achieved exactly a year ago when Eknath Shinde left the party he was associated with all his life and joined the BJP. The Shinde faction was soon recognised as the official Sena by the Election Commission, leaving Thackeray with a rump, but nonetheless he had public support.

The next stage came on Sunday, when Ajit Pawar, nephew of NCP founder Sharad Pawar, walked away with an estimated 40 MLAs to join the Shinde government and was immediately sworn in as the deputy chief minister – the second, after Devendra Fadnavis. Pawar junior had the support of heavy weights like Chaggan Bhujbal and Praful Patel and it is the latter’s ‘defection’ that has reportedly upset Sharad Pawar the most.

But is it a defection at all? Ajit and his group insist they have not broken away; rather, it is the NCP that has officially joined the Shinde government. If true, this would mean that the MVA is more or less dead. Pawar senior says that action will be taken against those who have left.

With Sharad Pawar, there is never a straight line or an obvious explanation. He always has a few tricks up his sleeve – as far back as in 1978, he left the Congress and joined hands with the Janata Party to become the chief minister of Maharashtra. Since then, he has shown a penchant for playing all sides to try and maximise the results for his own gains.

Three and a half years ago, when Ajit Pawar, in a shock move, joined the BJP and was sworn in, in the early hours of the morning, Pawar senior had expressed shock at the turn of events. In the event, Ajit Pawar could not bring in enough party MLAs and had to return to his mother party. Now, it turns out, this was a Sharad Pawar googly to expose the BJP. He could be playing the same game.

There is no denying, however, that Ajit Pawar’s overweening ambition and his feeling of going nowhere under his uncle’s towering presence has played a role. Last month, Sharad Pawar named his daughter Supriya Sule and Patel as working presidents and Ajit was appointed leader of the opposition in the house. The junior Pawar wanted a party post and made his disappointment clear, laying down a deadline of July 1 to become the party president.

But the seeds of rebellion had been sown a long time ago. He was among those who saw no harm in joining the BJP to form the government, which Sharad Pawar balked at. Ajit Pawar knew that with Supriya Sule in the picture, he would never make it to the top.

Applying the push was the BJP, with its usual pressure tactics of offering incentives to defectors coupled with the threat of official inquiries – many of those who have left with Ajit Pawar are facing one investigation or the other. Pawar himself is accused in an irrigation scam.

All through, Fadnavis and Pawar have maintained good relations. Add to that the BJP’s disappointment with Shinde and the fear of the MVA performing well, Ajit Pawar’s shift was a given. This move gives the BJP clout over Shinde, who will have to be on his toes. At some stage, it could give Pawar what he has always wanted – the chief ministership. And it will seriously affect the anti-BJP opposition nationally, which will now have to fight harder in Maharashtra. And where does that leave Sharad Pawar? As an ageing leader of a tiny party or the man who still is calling the shots in his home state from behind the scenes? There is no way of knowing that now.