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By quitting as NCP chief, is Sharad Pawar showing nephew Ajit who’s the boss?

In what is seen as a battle of wits with his nephew Ajit Pawar, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar burst a bombshell by announcing his intent to quit as national president of the party. The announcement on May 2, at the launch of the updated edition of Pawar’s biography in Marathi, came at a time when Ajit is said be in talks with the BJP, leading to a flux within the NCP.

Though Ajit has vehemently denied these reports, developments are expected to pick up pace after the Karnataka assembly polls and the Supreme Court (SC) verdict on a clutch of cases regarding the June 2022 change of guard in Maharashtra, where Eknath Shinde and his band of rebels toppled the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition with help from the BJP. A group of leaders in the NCP, who are at the receiving end of action by the central investigation agencies, are said to be eager to make the transition to the BJP. Leaders of the MVA claim that regardless of the course of action that his nephew takes, Sharad Pawar would stand firmly with them.

Pawar’s move is said to be an attempt to galvanise his forces and show his nephew that he is the boss in the NCP. The outcome of this confrontation may be shaped by who blinks first-Ajit or his uncle. Alternatively, Pawar may be letting his nephew take over the reins of the party in a détente to keep the NCP together. In case the NCP decides to break ranks with the MVA and join forces with the BJP, Pawar would not want this to happen under his watch at the fag end of his career and is hence disassociating himself from these future moves. Moreover, in case the NCP aligns itself with the BJP, Pawar can take a “democratic stance” that he will go with the party’s stance. The question about whether this is Pawar’s show of strength or if he has bowed to internal pressure will be answered in the days to come.

“Today, I have decided to step down as president of the NCP,” said Pawar, taking his audience by surprise. He added that he, however, would focus on education, agriculture, cooperation, sports and the cultural sector. Pawar announced that while he will complete his balance term of three years in the Rajya Sabha, he would not contest elections in the future. Pawar said that a committee of senior leaders, such as Ajit Pawar, Supriya Sule, Praful Patel, Sunil Tatkare and others, would decide on the appointment of the new NCP president.

This led to an immediate outburst of sympathy and support from party leaders and workers, who thronged the dais to persuade Pawar to go back on his decision. Some said they would not allow Pawar to leave the hall at the Y.B. Chavan Pratisthan at Nariman Point in south Mumbai till he acquiesced to their demand, while others threatened to launch an indefinite fast. Even as Pawar, who was flanked by wife Pratibha, sat almost sphinx-like on stage, former minister and the NCP’s Maharashtra president Jayant Patil broke down as he asked Pawar to rethink his move. “In Maharashtra, we all seek votes in the name of Pawar saheb. The party gets votes due to Pawar saheb. If Pawar saheb steps aside, our first question is, how will we face the people?” Patil said, his voice quaking. Leaders like Praful Patel, Sunil Tatkare and Chhagan Bhujbal too implored Pawar to reconsider, with some claiming that it was only Pawar who could unify the Opposition for the Lok Sabha elections.

However, even as NCP leaders and workers came out in support of Pawar, there was one dissenting voice-Ajit. While his uncle was being beseeched to rethink his move, Ajit asked those present to trust the decision of the committee. When Pawar’s daughter and Baramati MP Supriya Sule was asked to speak, Ajit promptly hushed her up as her “motha bhau” (elder brother).

Ajit questioned the naysayers why they were opposing the appointment of a new party president who would be molded and hand-held by the party patriarch. “There is no need to be emotional about it. This was going to happen at some point,” said Ajit, while revealing that Pawar had initially planned to announce this on 1 May, but had postponed it by a day due to the MVA’s public meeting in Mumbai. In his trademark brusque style, Ajit snapped at people and on one occasion, when a worker threatened to launch a fast in protest, Ajit retorted: “Do itâ€æ Barik hoshil (you will lose weight)!”

However, the chorus for Pawar to withdraw his decision continued even after Ajit’s intervention, making it evident that he may have been isolated in the party, at least for now.

Pawar, 82, is famously known as a 24X7 politician-meeting people since early morning and even travelling across the state at the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic. Politicians who are a generation or two younger than Pawar admit that they are in awe of the octogenarian’s energy levels.

Incidentally, a few days ago, Pawar had told a convention of party workers that they would “turn the bhakri (unleavened bread made of jowar or bajra)” in a popular metaphor in Marathi for ensuring a leadership transition in the ranks. This led to speculation whether he would replace Ajit as the leader of Opposition.

A senior Congress leader and former minister said this was not a mere leadership transition in the NCP but reflected a deeper “internal power struggle” between uncle and nephew, with Sharad Pawar playing “emotional politics” to isolate Ajit. This announcement would lead to the party rallying behind Pawar and showing Ajit that his uncle was the boss, the Congress leader claimed.

Such moves by Pawar have paid off in the past. In 2019, after the Enforcement Directorate (ED) booked Pawar for alleged money-laundering in the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank (MSCB) case, he turned this into political capital by taking an aggressive stance and threatening to visit the agency’s office in connection with the probe. This led to the ED backing off and sympathy emerging for Pawar in rural Maharashtra and among voters of the dominant Maratha community, in which he has a base. Later, when the victory of the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance in the state assembly polls was said to be a foregone conclusion, Pawar, then 79 and a cancer survivor, led a brave and spirited fightback by addressing a public meeting in pouring rain at Satara. This propelled the NCP and the Congress to 54 and 44 seats, respectively, in the polls.

“As long as he is in good health, Pawar will never step down from a leadership role. This is because regardless of who his successor is, his authority in the party and in politics will be diminishedâ€æ Ajit is being isolated gradually. Eventually, Pawar may withdraw his resignation or choose Sule as his successor. If he emerges stronger from this episode and decides to continue in the saddle, he may eventually replace Ajit as the leader of Opposition with a confidante like Jayant Patil,” the Congress leader explained.

Senior leaders of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) too felt this was Pawar’s tactic to show that he was the boss and commanded the support of a majority of party leaders, elected representatives and workers. “Pawar khunta halwun balkat kartahet (Pawar is shaking the nail to embed it deeper),” said a senior leader of Uddhav’s party. “Sharad Pawar and Ajit Pawar are locked in a running battle. Pawar is trying to marshal his forces and show he enjoys popular support,” he explained. The Sena leader predicted that Pawar’s resignation announcement would lead to his cadre and supporters joining ranks with him in solidarity, after which Pawar could take a U-turn and claim he was acquiescing to their wish.

However, an Ajit Pawar supporter claimed that Pawar was not likely to go back on his word. Explaining Ajit’s discordant notes in the meeting, the NCP leader explained that Pawar had briefed his family about the move and they were on board.

Incidentally, Pawar’s political foe and friend, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, had used a similar shock-and-awe tactic to strengthen his hold over his party. In 1978 and twice in the 1990s, Thackeray had announced his resignation as the party chief and from the Shiv Sena after his leadership was challenged. He, however, emerged stronger from these episodes as his Shiv Sainiks closed ranks with him.

Pawar’s initiation of sorts into politics began as a three-day-old infant in 1940. Pawar’s mother Sharadabai was a woman who broke the conventions of those traditional times by joining active politics. She became a member of the Pune district local board (as the zilla parishads were then known). In 1940, when he was just days old, Sharadabai, who has a deep influence on her children, attended the general body meeting of the body with her newborn son. So, will the consummate, 24X7 politician Pawar continue in the saddle as long as he can? Or will he hang up his boots to seek a quiet retirement? Only time will tell.

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