BJP’s induction of Ajit Pawar and NCP faction leaves future of Shinde camp in a limbo

Speculation is rife in political circles that there is a bigger move, that of making Ajit Pawar the next Chief Minister

July 03, 2023 09:46 pm | Updated 09:48 pm IST - Pune

Maharashtra Deputy Chief Ministers Ajit Pawar and Devendra Fadnavis with newly sworn-in State Minister Chhagan Bhujbal in Mumbai on July 3, 2023.

Maharashtra Deputy Chief Ministers Ajit Pawar and Devendra Fadnavis with newly sworn-in State Minister Chhagan Bhujbal in Mumbai on July 3, 2023. | Photo Credit: ANI

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s latest blitz in engineering a split in Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and taking his nephew Ajit Pawar on board has left the ruling Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena faction staring at a parlous political future.

The startling turn of events on Sunday which saw the sudden swearing in of Mr. Ajit Pawar and eight other NCP leaders has triggered speculation in political circles that this is but a prelude to a bigger move, that of making Mr. Ajit Pawar the next Chief Minister.

According to analysts and certain politicos, the BJP brass have reportedly become desperate after surveys indicating poor results if the BJP and the Shinde faction jointly contest the 2024 general and Assembly elections together.

Both Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan and Shiv Sena (UBT) leader and Uddhav Thackeray loyalist Sanjay Raut have openly said that the BJP had reportedly struck a deal with Mr. Ajit Pawar to be Chief Minister and that the swearing-in process was carried out rapidly due to the imminent disqualification of the 16 rebel MLAs of the Shinde camp.

“It is believed that the Assembly Speaker [Rahul Narvekar] has to rule on the disqualification of the 16 ‘rebel’ Shiv Sena legislators of the Shinde camp based on the Supreme Court’s ruling before the second week of August this year. It appears that Mr. Ajit Pawar been promised the CM post by the BJP if Mr. Shinde gets the axe,” Mr. Chavan said.

At a time when the Shinde camp leaders are still awaiting their turn in the long-pending second phase of the Maharashtra Cabinet expansion, the alacrity with which the nine NCP leaders, including Mr. Ajit Pawar, were sworn in has chagrined many Shinde Sena MLAs

When Mr. Shinde split Uddhav Thackeray Shiv Sena in June last year in a coup aided and abetted by the BJP, Mr. Shinde’s rebel faction has struggled to carve out an identity for themselves independent of the BJP’s shadow.

According to senior political analyst Vivek Bhavsar, the Shinde camp legislators have repeatedly justified their revolt by claiming the NCP was out to finish them when they were allies within the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA while accusing Uddhav Thackeray of forsaking his Hindutva ideals by cosying up to the Congress and the NCP.

“A common refrain of the Shinde faction has been that Ajit Pawar as Deputy CM [in the MVA] used to ensure that funds only went to the NCP MLAs for development in their constituencies. Yet today, they are grudgingly forced to stand by and accept the BJP’s induction of Ajit Pawar to their side,” Mr. Bhavsar said.

‘Dead weight’

He said that with the Shinde camp’s winnability in the Lok Sabha election in serious doubt, the faction is now being considered ‘dead weight’ by the BJP.

“It appears that Ajit Pawar was willing to come on board only if he were made CM. His experience and skill as administrator coupled with his knowledge of multiple portfolios makes him a far abler asset than Shinde, whose strengths are rather limited in this regard. Secondly, the BJP brass are acutely aware that a Brahmin face in the form of Devendra Fadnavis will not work in Maharashtra a second time. Hence, the choice for CM falls naturally to Ajit Pawar, a tall Maratha leader,” says Mr. Bhavsar.

Poor byelection performance

Tensions between the BJP and the Shinde faction have grown particularly intense after the poor electoral showing of the ruling partners in a series of Assembly and Legislative Council byelections early this year.  

This was seen in the big face-offs since the June coup, where the scales decisively tilted in favour of the Opposition MVA coalition.

In the Andheri East byelection in October 2022, the BJP, after initially fielding a candidate, Murji Patel, against Rutuja Latke, the candidate of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena faction, withdrew their candidate after it sensed it could not win the contest.  

Then, in February this year, the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA), belying the tall claims of the Shinde faction and the BJP, swept three of the five seats in the Maharashtra Legislative Council polls, trouncing the BJP in the critical Nagpur teachers’ constituency and Amravati graduates’ constituency seats. The Shinde group was a negligible factor in the MLC polls.

Later that month, the keenly-contested Assembly byelections in Pune (Kasba Peth and Pimpri-Chinchwad) saw the MVA coalition breach Kasba — a BJP bastion for 30 years.

According to Pune-based analyst Rajendra Pandharpure, Mr. Shinde’s biggest problem has been that even after becoming Chief Minister, he has failed to increase his sway beyond the Thane belt. 

“Mr. Shinde has repeatedly justified the coup by stating it was to save the Shiv Sena from the NCP and preserve Bal Thackeray’s ‘Hindutva’ ideals. But the electorate has not taken kindly to the manner in which Mr. Thackeray – a Shiv Sena CM – was unceremoniously supplanted. The MLC and byelection results prove that the Thackeray name still has a ring to it and the cadre is still largely with Uddhav,” Mr. Pandharpure observes.

At the same time, in the event the BJP does decide to jettison the Shinde camp, the blowback from the disgruntled Shinde MLAs could pose serious problems for the BJP-NCP combine, say observers.

“While the BJP could placate Mr. Shinde by accommodating him or his son, Shrikant Shinde in the Centre, the question remains as to the other MLAs. They will either merge with the BJP or a few may even look to returning back to Uddhav Thackeray. However, those who will not be accommodated will continue to queer the pitch for the BJP,” says a Mumbai-based analyst.

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