At 54, Ajit Pawar may like to re-learn manners and a few lessons if he wants to realise his big ambition to be chief minister of Maharashtra. He may have his best chance next year, yet as he manoeuvres towards the top job, the deputy chief minister presents a number of reasons why he isn’t the man for it.
If he were to do a SWOT analysis, his strengths list would read well: three-decade-long political career, several positions of power, weighty cabinet portfolios of water resources, agriculture, energy and finance, knows both urban and rural Maharashtra, admirable election management at both macro and micro levels, punctual to a fault, decisive, determined, focused, action-oriented, and the big advantage of pedigree.
Ajit can boast of being mentored by his uncle Sharad Pawar, strategist-politician, union agriculture minister and Nationalist Congress Party chief with challenging stints as Maharashtra chief minister behind him. Among the many constructive (and other) lessons Pawar imparted were: tame your arrogance, keep your language civil and show concern for the aam aadmi.
Ajit’s urinating-in-the-dam remark last Saturday mocking a protest-fasting farmer from Solapur, Prabhakar Deshmukh, violated these three tenets. A shocked Pawar forced him to apologise, but the damage had been done. Ajit’s qualified and conditional apology hardly helped. The remark is the latest in a string of inappropriate behaviours that Ajit has displayed over the past two years.
It will cause us some damage, acknowledged a senior leader. A resigned Pawar had recently told a Marathi channel that Ajit still needed to improve on these parameters.
“Ajit seems to not care about his popular image or the niceties of public discourse anymore,” said Professor Suhas Palshikar, department of political science, University of Pune. “He risked a backlash but made that crass remark.” Read with his other remarks such as “I am a ruffian”, Palshikar is apprehensive about Maharashtra’s future — and that of its political culture — if Ajit is in the top job.
FOR, the Weakness list in the SWOT table would read long too. Ajit has been increasingly described as brash, belligerent, confrontational, uncivil, condescending and indifferent to public opinion. He has alienated many, including veterans back home like Chandranna Taware, who call him “hot-headed” and say he seemed to be living the sobriquet ‘dada’ (Marathi for older brother) after his name in its negative connotation.
Fiery farmer leader Raju Shetti, challenging him over sugarcane issues, believes Ajit is a “spoilt person” and no longer understands farmers’ problems. Pune-based journalist Abhay Vaidya, who has covered the Pawars for decades, called Ajit “stupid” in a blogpost last week.
His personality adversely affects his associations and could impede his efficacy. His relationship with chief minister Prithviraj Chavan is practical at best, glacial at worst. Congress sources say Ajit’s behaviour and speech have often been liabilities. His brusqueness with bureaucrats is legendary with even senior officials afraid to speak their mind, said sources.
Across the business spectrum, Ajit’s relationships are limited. He shares only functional relationships with stalwarts like corporate czars Rahul Bajaj and Ajit Gulabchand, who have been Pawar’s closest pals for years. He has remained rather untouched by the arts. “He doesn’t seem to have grown out of his provincial beginnings, unlike Pawar, to expand his horizons and engage with unfamiliar fields,” said Palshikar.
The most defining period of Ajit’s career so far has been his 10-year stint from 1999 as water resources minister in the Congress-NCP government. It has also been his most controversial one.
The water-use policy evolved in this period led to rampant construction of dams and diversion of water that acted as a major factor in the manmade drought this year. This exacerbates the import of his crass remark. Then, the irrigation scam allegations last year — of R70,000 crore squandered over the decade — tore away the pretense of public good. Ajit resigned but was reinstated within 10 weeks, after a sham probe gave him a clean chit.
The stain remains, as does the residue of his crass remarks. This is good fodder for the opposition in the 2014 general and assembly elections. “Ajit has made one arrogant mistake after another. He must be seen to be punished. He must pay for it,” said Vinod Tawde, BJP, leader of the opposition in the legislative council.
However, Ajit’s blunt manner has its advantages for some in the NCP who see him as their best bet in the elections. He is popular among a section of legislators. Ajit Pawar, they say, takes quick decisions. “He tells officers to not delay files if the instructions are legal. But he doesn’t mind telling people that their problems can’t be solved if it isn’t possible under the rules,” said NCP legislator Prakash Binsale, a long-time ally.
The Ajit Pawar group, not the aam aadmi, is the fount of his authority. In fact, he has increasingly drawn his boundaries closer to include only those who swear by him and whose support will help him realise his ambition, even if this means alienating senior party colleagues, proficient and proud men with their own mass base.
The Pawar pedigree made Ajit the first among equals in tier two of the party leadership. That pre-eminent position called for responsible and mature politics, and a dash of humility.
Ajit may want to go back to the drawing board.