Ajit Pawar | The rebel who challenged the patriarch

With a tumultuous career marked by achievements, controversies and ambitions, the NCP leader has turned against his uncle, creating fractures in the family bonds and loyalty that once held the party together.

July 09, 2023 01:02 am | Updated 01:28 pm IST

Restless, ambitious, and fuelled by a deep sense of resentment, Ajit Pawar has emerged as a prominent figure in Maharashtra’s political landscape over the past four decades. From his early days under the tutelage of his uncle and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) patriarch Sharad Pawar, Mr. Ajit Pawar has always shown a desire for power and a yearning for the next chapter of his journey to unfold.

Affectionately known as Dada (elder brother in Marathi) among his supporters, Mr. Ajit Pawar cut his teeth in politics at the grassroots level under the shadow of his uncle in the 1980s. He tasted his first electoral success in 1991, winning the Baramati Lok Sabha seat. However, his determination to pave the way for his uncle’s ascension led him to resign shortly afterwards, allowing Mr. Sharad Pawar to become the Defence Minister in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government.

The same year, Mr. Ajit Pawar was elected MLA from the family pocket borough of Baramati and went on to represent the constituency for six terms. He won the 2019 Assembly election with a margin of more than 1.65 lakh votes. The triumph further affirmed his iron grip on the constituency and as a formidable leader within Maharashtra.

Despite his meteoric rise in State politics, following in the footsteps of his uncle, Mr. Ajit Pawar is surrounded by a persistent feeling of being “suppressed” and “denied” his ultimate destiny to occupy the coveted Chief Minister’s office on the sixth floor of the Mantralaya (State administrative headquarters) — as he believes he was “unjustly and repeatedly denied” opportunities by Mr. Sharad Pawar since 2004.

He harboured a deep-seated bitterness towards his uncle which eventually led him to raise the banner of revolt within the party and hitch his horses to a different wagon — the Bharatiya Janata Party — to secure the Deputy Chief Minister’s position for an unprecedented fifth term.

On July 2, in a dramatic turn of events which followed months of speculation that he was cosying up to the BJP, the NCP leader orchestrated a vertical split within the party and joined the Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis government.

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 the Raj Bhavan and the faction claims to have the support of a majority of the NCP MPs, MLAs, and MLCs.

His ambition for the chief ministerial post has remained unfulfilled despite his multiple stints as Deputy Chief Minister. However, the Baramati strongman, who will turn 64 this month, has not given up his aspirations. During the first show of strength of his breakaway faction on July 5, during which he unleashed a harsh attack on his uncle, Mr. Ajit Pawar said: “I became Deputy CM five times, which itself is a record. I want to become Chief Minister one day and implement my own plans for the people’s welfare.” He said he was being unjustly portrayed as a villain, and asked Pawar Sr. to retire from politics.

Succession battle

In a veiled jibe at the succession battle in the party triggered by Mr. Sharad Pawar’s decision to choose his daughter and Baramati MP Supriya Sule as the NCP’s working president, Mr. Ajit Pawar said: “What is my fault? That I was born to someone else?” During a television interview a few weeks ago, he proclaimed: “Why wait until 2024? I am ready to become Chief Minister now.”

While Mr. Sharad Pawar’s admirers laud his leadership skills and describe him as “the best Prime Minister India never had”, Mr. Ajit Pawar does not want his supporters to view him as “the best Chief Minister that Maharashtra never had”, and wants to helm the State like his uncle — who became Chief Minister four times. His supporters see him as a potential Chief Minister and laud his leadership skills.

On the other hand, Mr. Ajit Pawar’s detractors, including his former colleagues in the NCP, the Congress and the Shiv Sena (UBT) and some in the Eknath Shinde faction, perceive him as an ‘opportunist driven solely by a thirst for power’. The critics believe his actions undermined the Pawar family’s political influence from within. “His discontent and restlessness have led him to rebel against his own family, raising doubts about the once unwavering loyalty and familial bonds that once held them together,” a senior politician said.

According to Pratap Abse, a political analyst who has closely followed the political career of both Pawars, Mr. Ajit Pawar has failed to comprehend his uncle’s political strategy of further cementing the party’s base ahead of the 2024 election to give him a chance to become Chief Minister, and “jumped the boat at a wrong time”. “He is a grassroots leader and an able administrator, but is also very ambitious. Like his uncle, Ajit Pawar will go to great lengths to fulfil his promises,” he said.

However, after closely working with Mr. Sharad Pawar for an extended period, he should have had a better understanding of his uncle’s approach, Mr. Abse added. “The Senior always waits for the right moment to provide his loyalists with opportunities. Ajit Pawar’s impatience was exploited by the BJP, which pursued him for a long time until he severed ties with his mentor, uncle and party leader.”

The internal dynamics of the NCP and its relationship with Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition partners have often strained the party dynamics. Mr. Ajit Pawar’s discontent has been further fuelled by the coalition projecting Uddhav Thackeray as the face of the MVA.

Ties with the BJP

In 2019, Mr. Ajit Pawar joined hands with the BJP and became Deputy Chief Minister in a Devendra Fadnavis government that lasted for a mere 80 hours. Subsequently, he returned to the NCP and once again assumed the role of Deputy Chief Minister in the MVA government led by Mr. Thackeray, where he remained for two-and-a-half years until the government collapsed in June last year.

Prior to these positions, Mr. Ajit Pawar also served as Deputy Chief Minister during the 15-year tenure of the Congress-NCP government. Throughout his political career, he held various portfolios, including Finance, Irrigation, and Power. He first became a Minister in 1999.

However, Mr. Ajit Pawar’s political career has not been without controversies. His close aides and family members have faced investigations by the Enforcement Directorate and the Anti-Corruption Bureau regarding their involvement in sugar cooperative units. In 2014, when Mr. Fadnavis was in the opposition, he raised allegations against Mr. Ajit Pawar regarding his alleged involvement in the ₹70,000 crore irrigation scam. The irregularities in irrigation projects in the State came to light during Mr. Ajit Pawar’s tenure as Water Resources Minister.

In May, through a resignation episode, the 82-year-old Sharad Pawar was believed to have addressed the deeper internal power struggle within his family in a suave and sophisticated style, and defused unrest in the party. However, Mr. Ajit Pawar’s revolt proved it wrong.

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