Tensions ran high on Wednesday as rival factions of the Nationalist Congress Party convened separate meetings to show their strength, escalating the battle between Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit Pawar to control the 24-year-old political outfit. Sources in both factions told The Hindu that 32 out of the NCP’s 53 MLAs attended the meeting convened by Mr. Ajit Pawar in Bhujbal Knowledge City in suburban Bandra, while 18 MLAs turned up to support his uncle.
Attacking each other in a volley of sharp words, Mr. Sharad Pawar accused his nephew of being hungry for power and warned that the BJP would destroy his faction, while Mr. Ajit Pawar accused his 83-year-old uncle of stubbornness and suggested that he quit active politics.
Not power hungry: Sharad
The veteran politician criticised his nephew for joining the BJP, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling the NCP a corrupt party. He warned Pawar Jr. that the saffron party would “destroy” their allies, and that his faction would also meet the same fate. Objecting to the rebel faction’s continued use of his photograph in their publicity materials, he said, “Those who are using my photo know they have nothing else.”
Recollecting his connection with the masses when he founded the NCP in 1999 after quitting the Congress, Mr. Sharad Pawar said, “Although we are not in power, we are still connected with people, and we are in people’s hearts. We are not hungry for power and the party will continue to work for the people.” He added, “We have to march ahead, there are many hurdles before us.”
I want to become CM: Ajit
Admitting that he aspired to be Chief Minister one day and implement his own plans for the people’s welfare, Mr. Ajit Pawar said that he was being unjustly portrayed as a villain. “I became Deputy CM five times, which itself is a record. Even I want to become Chief Minister and head the State,” he said.
The 63-year-old, who led a vertical split in the NCP to become Deputy Chief Minister in the Shiv Sena-BJP government on Sunday unleashed a harsh attack on his uncle even as he insisted that Mr. Sharad Pawar was revered as the NCP’s deity.
Ajit asks uncle to retire
Accusing his uncle of stubbornness, he asked him to consider retiring from active politics. “IAS officers retire at 60. Even in politics, BJP leaders retire at 75. Everybody has his innings. You can see the example of L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi. The most productive years are from 25 to 75 years. You are 83, aren’t you going to stop?” he asked. “Give us your blessing and we will pray that you live a long life,” he added.
In a veiled jibe at Mr. Sharad Pawar’s choice of his daughter and Baramati MP Supriya Sule as the NCP’s working president, Mr. Ajit Pawar said, “It is not our mistake that we weren’t born to ‘certain people’.”
He also blamed his uncle for the NCP losing out on the chance to have a Chief Minister in 2004. “During the 2004 Assembly election, the NCP had a larger number of MLAs compared to the Congress. If we had not conceded the Chief Minister position to Congress back then, Maharashtra would have had a Chief Minister solely from the NCP to this day,” the Deputy Chief Minister said.
‘Modi will win in 2024’
He recalled a 2017 meeting of NCP leaders at the CM’s official residence under the leadership of Chhagan Bhujbal, Jayant Patel, and himself. “Several BJP leaders were also present. We engaged in discussions regarding the allocation of Cabinet portfolios and guardian ministers. However, subsequently, our party leadership took a step back,“ Mr. Ajit Pawar recounted.
On the national scene, he stressed that Mr. Modi would come back to power in 2024. “The support for PM Modi is unprecedented, as people vote for him due to his charismatic image,” he said.
Questioning his nephew’s decision-making process, the NCP chief said that if Mr. Ajit Pawar had any concerns and issues, he should have approached him directly. “If he had something on his mind, he could have spoken to me directly,” he said.
The four-time Maharashtra CM and former Union Minister also questioned the BJP and asked, “If NCP was corrupt, why did you take them in NDA? Whatever happened to [Shiv Sena (UBT) chief] Uddhav Thackeray has been repeated,” he said. “Just a few days ago, they [Mr. Ajit Pawar’s faction] derided Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, saying they haven’t seen such a CM in all these years, but today they have joined him,” he added.
On the Ajit Pawar-led faction approaching the Election Commission and staking claim to the party symbol, Mr. Sharad Pawar assured his party workers and supporters that he would not allow anyone to snatch the symbol. “We have to march ahead, there are many hurdles before us,” he added.
While Mr. Ajit Pawar questioned his uncle’s decision to go with the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena, but not with the BJP, Pawar Sr. responded by saying that there is a difference between Shiv Sena and BJP. “BJP destroy alliances... Let them be happy there. We will work together,” he said.
The Rajya Sabha member claimed that his close aide Chhagan Bhujbal had informed him that he would go to Mr. Ajit Pawar’s place to assess the situation there. However, to his surprise, Mr. Bhujbal went ahead and took oath as a Minister in the Shinde government, he said.
Earlier in the day, a large number of supporters loyal to the NCP patriarch gathered both at Silver Oak, his residence, and at the Yashwantrao Chavan Centre. Supporters of Mr. Ajit Pawar also gathered outside his official residence.
Speaking to The Hindu on the disqualification petitions moved by both factions, Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar said that he has received the petitions, each seeking the disqualification of MLAs from the other camp on the grounds of defection. He said that he would also have to decide which is the political party, and who was authorised to issue a Whip.
“I received two disqualification petitions on July 3, one filed by Jayant Patil from Sharad Pawar’s camp and the other by Anil Bhaidas Patil from Ajit Pawar camp. Both are seeking disqualification under paragraph 2 - disqualification on grounds of defection (1)(a) of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution of India,” he said. “We are still scrutinising the petition to see if they comply with all the provisions of the Tenth Schedule and the Maharashtra Members of the Legislative Assembly Disqualification on the grounds of Defection Rules, 1986. After deciding on these petitions, we will begin the process of finding out who is the political party, who will be authorised to issue the Whip,” the Speaker added.
(With inputs from Sonam Saigal)