What did Sharad Pawar achieve by resigning and changing his mind? | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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What did Sharad Pawar achieve by resigning and changing his mind?

May 31, 2023 11:22 AM IST

Five things: A tighter grip, reining in potential rebels, a checkmate to Ajit, and putting Pawar in the centre stage

It has been nearly a month since Sharad Pawar stunned his party workers with an announcement of his resignation as Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) national president, during the launch of a revised edition of his Marathi autobiography, Lok Maze Sangati (People are my companions) in Mumbai.

What did Pawar, 82, achieve by announcing his resignation and later withdrawing it?(HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
What did Pawar, 82, achieve by announcing his resignation and later withdrawing it?(HT PHOTO)

Three days of hectic parlays with the rank and file of the party as well as other leaders, Pawar announced on May 5 that he would continue as party chief, as per the wishes of his party workers as well as the unanimous decision of a committee appointed by him to find his successor.

NCP’s allies heaved a sigh of relief; ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders wondered whether the entire drama was orchestrated. What did Pawar, 82, achieve by announcing his resignation and later withdrawing it? As NCP prepares to celebrate its 24th Foundation Day on June 10, let’s decode the inveterate politician’s move.

A tighter grip

Like most regional parties in India, the NCP has been a unipolar party right from its formation in June 1999. It revolved around Pawar's charisma. Over time – coinciding with the BJP assuming power in Maharashtra — there was an impression that Pawar’s grip on his party was loosening as his nephew Ajit began to handle most of its routine affairs. In 2019, however, Pawar’s power was in no doubt as he tackled Ajit's rebellion and helped put together an unlikely alliance of his party with the Congress and the Shiv Sena under Uddhav Thackeray’s leadership, to form the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government.

When he announced his resignation, cadre and party legislators alike were worried—many couldn’t imagine the party without him, and others needed him to win elections. For the cadre, it was clear that he mattered the most in the party. Thus, the resignation sent out a message that it was he who called the shots at the party.

Reining in potential rebels

For a couple of weeks before his resignation, there were rumours that the NCP was on the verge of a split. A section of its leaders wanted to join hands with the BJP, much against the wishes of Pawar and daughter Supriya Sule. Unlike in 2019, when Ajit and a few of his close aides had taken the initiative to go with the BJP during a failed attempt at forming a government under Devendra Fadnavis, this time around, several senior leaders of the party were reportedly in favour of joining hands with the BJP. According to party insiders, they were putting pressure on Pawar to give his nod for an alliance with the BJP. There were also speculations of a coup within the NCP much like what Eknath Shinde had done in the Shiv Sena last year. Pawar's resignation — and what followed — changed the course of things. Most of the party seniors who wanted an alliance with the BJP had to pivot and urge Pawar to withdraw his resignation. They pledged fealty and said they would abide by whatever he said. With the party rank and file standing by him, the pro-BJP camp backed off.

The timing of Pawar’s resignation was crucial – it took place just before the Karnataka election results and the Supreme Court verdict over the Shiv Sena split. This helped prevent any attempts to break the party: no MLA would dare to quit the party when the rank and file was concerned about Pawar’s resignation. Congress's victory in Karnataka also injected a new hope among the opposition parties, especially the NCP which has a strong presence in western Maharashtra that shares a border with Karnataka.

This apex court’s verdict on the split in Shiv Sena has also made another Shinde-type rebellion difficult. The apex court clearly indicated that a split in the party needed to be within the framework of the anti-defection law, and a breakaway faction couldn’t form a separate party. This has now made any large-scale defection from opposition parties more difficult. With the MVA becoming more aggressive and seat-sharing talks already in progress, possible defectors will not have it easy to split the party. To drill the point home, the NCP plans to hold public meetings — it held one on May 29 — on the Supreme Court’s verdict to expose the “illegitimate” ways deployed to form the current Sena-BJP government in the state.

Checkmate to Ajit

Soon after Pawar’s declaration, his nephew asked party colleagues to not get sentimental and respect Pawar's decision to step down as party chief. According to party insiders, Ajit was under the impression that Pawar would not reconsider his decision to resign. But he seems to have miscalculated the move by his uncle. With Pawar back in the saddle, he has shown that Ajit's writ doesn't run large in the party. Pawar also gave due importance to state unit chief Jayant Patil — not a favourite of Ajit’s — and has strongly opposed any alliance with the BJP. Ajit is on the backfoot now, at least till he figures out what to do next. Several MLAs in Ajit’s camp too, are sceptical of being part of a miscalculated adventure.

Pawar centre stage

The resignation episode cemented Pawar’s position as the fulcrum of opposition unity in Maharashtra and also a key figure in the Opposition camp as it prepares to face Narendra Modi-led BJP in next year's general elections.

From Rahul Gandhi to Nitish Kumar to M K Stalin, the most prominent opposition leaders in the country called Pawar and urged him not to resign as party chief. This was the time he was needed the most in national politics, they told him.

As long as Maharashtra politics is concerned, Pawar has shown that there is no alternative to him if the opposition parties have to work together in the run-up to the national and assembly elections next year. Maharashtra has the second highest number of Lok Sabha seats (48) after Uttar Pradesh.

As the MVA coalition seems to be a strong contender for power in the state, Pawar has gained more importance than Uddhav Thackeray, Ajit Pawar or any other MVA leaders. The three partners in the coalition would need him to anchor the MVA and monitor its functioning. If Pawar is not at the helm, the three parties and their leaders would probably spend more time bickering than fighting the BJP. A setback in Maharashtra, where it won 41 seats in 2019 elections, could affect BJP’s arithmetic nationally. As such, the opposition can’t afford not to have Pawar on the battleground.

“Pawar is one of the very few politicians who can anticipate BJP's moves and plan a counter strategy accordingly. His role would be crucial not only for 48 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra but also working out strategies of the broad opposition coalition against BJP at the national level,” said Padmabhushan Deshpande, a Mumbai-based political analyst.

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