In a dramatic turn of events which followed months of speculation that he was cosying up to the ruling BJP, the Nationalist Congress Party leader Ajit Pawar — who is also NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s nephew — led a vertical split in his party and joined hands with the National Democratic Alliance on Sunday afternoon. Though he claimed to have the support of all his party’s MLAs, his uncle made it clear he did not back the move.
Mr. Ajit Pawar took oath as the Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra for the fifth time, setting a record for the largest number of appointments to this position since it was created in 1978. He will share the post with the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, who also holds a battery of other portfolios, including Home and Finance.
Eight other NCP legislators — Chhagan Bhujbal, the NCP supremo’s close confidant Dilip Walse-Patil, Hasan Mushrif, Aatram Dharamraobaba Bhagwantrao, the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde’s nephew Dhananjay Munde, Aditi Tatkare, Sanjay Bansode, and Anil Patil — were also inducted as Ministers in what is now known as the ‘Shinde-Fadnavis-Pawar government’, in a hurriedly conducted ceremony at Raj Bhavan.
Ms. Tatkare, daughter of Lok Sabha member Sunil Tatkare, became the first woman Minister in the current dispensation. Deputy Speaker Narhari Zirwal and the NCP’s newly-appointed working president and former Union Minister Praful Patel were also present at the Raj Bhavan event.
Mr. Ajit Pawar convened an urgent meeting with senior NCP legislators at his official residence on Sunday, at which Mr. Sharad Pawar’s daughter, Lok Sabha MP Supriya Sule, was also present. However, Ms. Sule left the meeting early and her cousin immediately headed to the Raj Bhavan, where Chief Minister Eknath Shinde arrived with his deputy Mr. Fadnavis and four or five of his cabinet colleagues.
Will rebuild: Sharad Pawar
Mr. Sharad Pawar, the 83-year-old NCP patriarch who is presently in Pune, made it clear that he is not supporting his nephew’s decision, and noted the situation was not novel. “This may be new for some but not for me. My aim will be to repeat the scenario of 1980 where except for six of his 58 MLAs, all had deserted me, but I rebuilt the party from scratch by touring Maharashtra; and I will be touring the State again,” he said.
While sources in the NCP and BJP told The Hindu that the 63-year-old junior Pawar has the “solid backing” of 36 of the NCP’s 53 MLAs, the new Deputy Chief Minister insisted that all of the party’s MLAs are standing united with him. He claimed that he has the party’s support and that the senior leaders are aware of it, but refused to directly answer queries about his uncle’s support.
‘NCP MLAs on board’
Speaking to reporters soon after taking oath, Mr. Ajit Pawar said that the party had decided to become part of the Shiv Sena-BJP government for the sake of the country’s development, and praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership. “We joined the government as NCP and will contest all forthcoming elections on our party’s name and symbol. All elected representatives of the party are with us. Some of them are out of the country, but I have personally reached out to all of them and had discussions regarding our decision. I am pleased to state that they are in agreement with our stance,” he claimed, adding that, in a democracy, the majority holds the key.
Explaining his big switch, Mr. Ajit Pawar said that it was evident that a single party alone could form the government in Maharashtra, a situation that has existed since the 1990s. Just as the NCP had previously aligned with the Congress and then the Shiv Sena (UBT) as well, now it was aligned with the BJP, he said.
“Several people will criticise now a bit, but we don’t give value to that and we will keep working for the progress of the State,” he said, adding that he had resigned as the Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra State Legislative Assembly on Friday.
Allying with the BJP
He noted that the NCP had previously had seven MLAs in Nagaland; based on the party’s decision, all the MLAs went with the BJP. “And if we were able to collaborate with BJP in Nagaland, there is no reason why we cannot do the same here. When the party can go with Shiv Sena, why not with BJP,” Mr. Ajit Pawar said.
Noting that the NCP has joined the government as the third party, Mr.Bhujbal said that it was undeniable that the safety of the nation was entrusted to Mr. Modi’s leadership. “Some individuals claim that we have divided the party, but that is incorrect. We are here as the NCP, united in our purpose. While we have voiced criticisms against the Modi government on various occasions, it is undeniable that the nation is safe in his leadership,” he said.
‘Triple engine sarkar’
Welcoming Mr. Ajit Pawar and other NCP leaders into his government, Mr. Shinde said that the State now had one Chief Minister and two deputy Chief Ministers whose experience would help strengthen Maharashtra.
“Now, Maharashtra has a ‘triple engine’ sarkar. Our people’s government will operate at the speed of a bullet train,” he said.
Mr. Shinde, who recently completed one year in office, said that the parties in the government were united on the platform of State development. “Ajit Dada supported our development goals. During the previous Lok Sabha elections, NCP secured four-five seats, but it appears that they won’t get a single seat in the coming elections,” he remarked.
Forging his own legacy
For months, there has been widespread speculation about Mr. Ajit Pawar’s alleged ties to the BJP. In May this year — before his uncle announced his decision to quit as the party chief, only to withdraw it later — the junior Pawar visited Delhi to meet the BJP top brass. The Baramati MLA is known to be politically ambitious and enjoys the image of a grassroots leader.
After Ms. Sule was appointed as the working president of the party, Mr. Ajit Pawar appealed to the party leadership to relieve him of the responsibility of Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly and assign him a role in the party organisation instead.
Since his failed rebellion in 2019, Mr. Ajit Pawar has always harboured a strong desire to forge his own political legacy, distinct from the one his uncle has cultivated throughout an illustrious half-century-long political career. On Sunday, he became the Deputy Chief Minister for the third time in less than four years, a move which will further weaken the Opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi — the unlikely coalition of the NCP and the Congress with their ideological opposite, the Shiv Sena led by Uddhav Thackeray — whose prime architect was the senior Pawar.