With the Supreme Court’s decision on the disqualification petition of 16 rebel Shiv Sena MLAs belonging to Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s faction expected in the coming days, speculation is rife over fresh political alignments in the State.
The buzz of a second ‘political earthquake’ in Maharashtra in less than a year (after Mr. Shinde’s coup in June 2022) was amplified when the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) took contrarian stands on certain issues with other parties in the Opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance, which also comprises of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena and the Congress.
The NCP’s previous history of intrigue with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the startling early morning swearing-in of Ajit Pawar as Deputy Chief Minister alongside the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis as Chief Minister in 2019 has given cause for anxiety among the NCP’s allies, the Congress and the Sena (UBT).
This was fuelled after reports that the Enforcement Directorate (ED) had allegedly dropped the names of Mr. Ajit Pawar and his wife Sunetra from the charge-sheet filed in the 2019 Maharashtra State Cooperative (MSC) Bank money laundering case. Mr. Ajit Pawar, the former deputy CM, was one of the prominent and influential members of the Board of Directors of MSC Bank at the time.
However, Mr. Ajit Pawar has categorically denied he had received any “clean chit” in the case. “The probe is still on in the case. I want to clearly state that we have got no clean chit as yet. I do not know how these reports have surfaced,” he said.
Mr. Ajit Pawar further dismissed suggestions that he would join the BJP in the event that the Supreme Court disqualified rebel Shiv Sena MLAs as “baseless” and “having no truth whatsoever”.
Speculation of fresh political alignments had also gathered pace following Mr. Ajit Pawar’s uncle and NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s recent statements on the Savarkar issue and the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe against the Gautam Adani Group.
Mr. Sharad Pawar’s stance on the JPC probe against Gautam Adani (on whom the NCP chief has lavished praise in the past) has been in stark contrast to the stance taken by the Congress, with the potential to trigger a schism within the tripartite MVA.
Then, in an interview to a vernacular news channel, Mr. Pawar further said that Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Uddhav Thackeray had not taken his fellow parties (the NCP and the Congress) into confidence while resigning as Maharashtra CM in 2022 following Mr. Shinde’s rebellion.
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Mr. Thackeray’s resignation prior to facing the trust vote in the House in 2022 following Mr. Shinde’s revolt has been a sticking point between him and his MVA allies.
This led Mr. Uddhav Thackeray, in an unusual move, to call upon Mr. Pawar at the latter’s ‘Silver Oak’ residence in Mumbai to iron-out apparent coordination problems between the MVA parties.
Following the Thackeray-Pawar meet, the NCP chief exhorted all three parties to “speak with one voice” in public despite their differing views on an issue.
Like his nephew, the 82-year-old NCP president, long known for his adroit political manoeuvring, also refuted suggestions that there was a perception he was ‘aiding’ the BJP, given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often praised Mr. Pawar in the past.
It may be recalled that immediately after the 2014 Maharashtra Assembly election results, the NCP had offered “unsolicited support” to the BJP when its then ally, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena, had briefly dithered on forming a government with its saffron partner.
Back then, Mr. Sharad Pawar had justified this by saying the NCP was giving support in the interest of providing Maharashtra a stable government.
Again, whenever the BJP’s relations with the Thackeray-led Shiv Sena hit a new low, the BJP’s top brass — including Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself and then Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley — paid ‘non-political’ visits to Mr. Sharad Pawar’s stronghold of Baramati in Pune district. This was seen as the BJP’s strategy to keep the Shiv Sena in check.
Then, after the 2019 Assembly election results, Mr. Ajit Pawar formed a short-lived government with Mr. Fadnavis, which eventually unravelled after Mr. Sharad Pawar ensured that the majority NCP MLAs remained with him and not his nephew. The elder Pawar eventually helped form the MVA with Uddhav Thackeray as Chief Minister.
While a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then and the MVA, too, has been toppled, Mr. Ajit Pawar, as the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) in the State Assembly, has nonetheless maintained warm relations with Mr. Fadnavis, which has caused many observers to remark that the LoP in the Legislative Assembly was markedly ‘soft’ on the ruling Shinde-Fadnavis dispensation.
The NCP’s history of opportunistic politics will keep its allies on tenterhooks till the apex court delivers its decision on the ‘Sena versus Sena’ case.
Meanwhile, Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut, known for his proximity to Mr. Sharad Pawar, has accused the ruling BJP of using Central agencies to try and break the NCP.
Mr. Raut, too, denied the possibility of Mr. Ajit Pawar going over to the BJP at this stage.
“I do not think Ajit Pawar, who is an important leader of the MVA alliance, will do any such thing. He is a self-respecting leader known for his straight talk. His [Ajit Pawar’s] political future is bright. I do not see him working under the ineffective Shinde-Fadnavis government,” Mr. Raut said.