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How Sharad Pawar outwitted his nephew Ajit

By Shailesh Gaikwad, Mumbai
PUBLISHED ON NOV 27, 2019 01:37 AM IST

When the story of the three-day old long Devendra Fadnavis-Ajit Pawar government is written, a substantial part of it will focus on how Sharad Pawar, 79, the grand old man of Maharashtra politics outwitted his ambitious nephew.

On Saturday morning, Ajit Pawar, 60 , elected legislative party leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), surprised everyone by allying with Fadnavis to form a BJP-NCP government in the state, “for the sake of farmers” as he himself put it.

Faced with the prospect of a split in the NCP and the family, party (and family) patriarch Sharad Pawar moved quickly.

“I have seen many such battles. It is not new for me,” Sharad Pawar told the media on Monday after paying tributes to his political guru, the late YB Chavan, at Karad in western Maharashtra.

Indeed, Sharad Pawar has, for many decades now, played a significant role in making or breaking governments in the state and splitting parties. Still, this case was different because the split was being engineered by his nephew, effectively No 2 in the party hierarchy, and the man widely seen as his political heir.

The BJP’s attempt to form the government was entirely built around Ajit Pawar’s ability to break the NCP. After all, he knew the NCP inside-out, was popular with a section of party workers, and at least a dozen legislators were his men.

Sharad Pawar had to deal with several issues. The most significant was the personal shock of his favoured nephew snitching sides.

“Ajit’s rebellion was a shock for Pawar though he knew his nephew was unpredictable. However, he took no time to recover from the same and quickly planned the next moves ,” a former NCP minister and close aide of Sharad Pawar said, on condition of anonymity.

Early on Saturday morning, soon after his nephew’s betrayal became evident, Sharad Pawar summoned senior leaders of the party and asked them to ensure that the majority of the 54 MLAs stayed loyal. He himself spoke to some of them over phone, the aide added.

Soon after, he called a meeting of the party’s legislators at YB Chavan Centre at Nariman Point and passed a resolution removing Ajit Pawar as head of the NCP legislative unit; state NCP chief Jayant Patil was appointed in his place. The meeting was attended by 41 MLAs. Soon after the meeting, this decision was conveyed to the state legislature’s secretariat. Interestingly, the party had not communicated Ajit Pawar’s election to the post to the secretariat. The communication effectively checkmated the possibility of Ajit Pawar’s whip being applicable to the legislators.

Once he was sure that majority of MLAs were with him, Sharad Pawar concentrated on getting the remaining 12 MLAs back into the fold. It took two days, but eventually he prevailed on 11 of them.

Sharad Pawar, who had not displayed any public anger at his nephew, then started working on bringing Ajit Pawar back too. He sent senior leaders such as Chhagan Bhujbal, Jayant Patil, Dilip Walse-Patil and Sunil Tatkare to talk to his nephew. There were series of meetings that started on Saturday itself and went on through the three days, but Ajit Pawar remained firm in his stand. By Monday, though, it became clear that only one MLA remained with him.

Even as this was happening, Sharad Pawar was aware of the possibility of the BJP approaching MLAs of all three parties, the NCP, Shiv Sena, and Congress. His response was to organise a meeting of all legislators of the three parties. “‘We are 162’ was organised on Monday evening to send a clear message that we had the numbers and all three parties would stick together,” said the Pawar aide.

“Pawar knew it would become a major media event and send the right signal to friends and foes alike,” he added.

He also chose the platform to make it clear that Ajit’s whip would not apply the NCP MLAs.

“The person [Ajit Pawar] has been removed from the post [as legislative unit head]. He can’t take any decision on our behalf, can’t issue any orders,” Pawar announced in front of 158 MLAs present at Grand Hyatt hotel.

“I have discussed this with parliament officers and retired officers of state legislature. I am willing to take personal responsibility for this,” Pawar assured his legislators.

Pawar took a little over three days to tame his nephew, quell the rebellion and ensure that the BJP-led government didn’t last. Tuesday’s Supreme Court order came in handy for him. The apex court asked Fadnavis to prove his majority within a day, ruled out secret ballot and directed that the speaker’s election should not be held before the trust vote.

Ajit Pawar resigned soon after. Fadnavis followed suit. By evening, the talk in NCP was that Ajit Pawar would apologise and return to the party. There was no confirmation on this though, and Ajit Pawar himself could not be reached for comment.

“It looks like Ajit underestimated his uncle’s hold over the party. Sharad Pawar defeated not just Ajit Pawar but Fadnavis and his bosses,” said political analyst Prakash Bal.

Significantly, the win will increase the NCP veteran’s profile and importance in national politics. He has foiled the BJP’s attempt to split his family and his party and ensured formation of a non-BJP government of three parties in crucial state like Maharashtra, analysts said.

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