Undeterred by crisis, Sharad Pawar vows to rebuild party

NCP chief distances himself from his nephew Ajit Pawar’s rebellion and says things would be clear in the next few days; senior Congress leaders say they saw this coming

July 02, 2023 10:45 pm | Updated 11:56 pm IST - Pune

Nationalist Congress Party founder Sharad Pawar with party MLA Rohit Pawar during a press conference at his residence in Pune on July 2, 2023.

Nationalist Congress Party founder Sharad Pawar with party MLA Rohit Pawar during a press conference at his residence in Pune on July 2, 2023. | Photo Credit: PTI

As senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar, after months of speculation and dithering, finally joined the ruling Eknath Shinde-BJP dispensation along with other NCP leaders in Maharashtra, party president Sharad Pawar on Sunday distanced himself from his nephew’s rebellion and vowed to rebuild his party to play a vital role in the Opposition.

Unruffled by the bewildering turn of events, the octogenarian NCP chief, a past master in tiding political crises, said he did not endorse his nephew’s actions, while stating that things would be clear in the next few days.  

“Some days before, Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi had targeted the NCP [in Bhopal] by remarking that our party wallowed in corruption while mentioning the Maharashtra Cooperative Bank scam and the Maharashtra irrigation scam. Today, I am happy that the PM’s party — the BJP — has sworn in some members of the NCP as part of the government… I am thankful to the PM for having freed the NCP from his accusations,” quipped Mr. Pawar.

Commenting on the question of the future of the NCP, Mr. Pawar said the present crisis was not new for him.

“This situation may be new for some but not for me. My aim will be to repeat the scenario of 1980. In 1980, except for six of my 58 MLAs in my party, all had deserted me. I became the leader of just five MLAs and started touring Maharashtra with the objective of rebuilding my party from scratch. In the next elections, of those who had left me, all were defeated barring three or four... I have full faith in Maharashtra’s public and its youth and I will be touring the State again,” he said.

Opposition support

He said that since the surprise swearing in of nine NCP leaders, he had been getting phone calls from leaders of several parties across the country, including West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee and Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge, expressing solidarity in their fight against the BJP.

Mr. Pawar warned that the party would have to take a decision on all those who had violated the party line and taken the oath.

“I have not spoken with any of these nine [including Mr. Ajit Pawar] who took the oath. Only Chhagan Bhujbal told me that what was happening was not proper,” said the NCP president, who served as Maharashtra’s Chief Minister four times in the past.

Ajit Pawar leads vertical split in NCP and after | Updates

Criticising the actions of senior NCP leaders such as Praful Patel and Sunil Tatkare, who had crossed over, Mr. Pawar said: “I am the party’s president and I had allotted some responsibilities to these people… I had appointed Mr. Praful Patel as general secretary [and party’s working president] recently. I want to tell them that they have not discharged their responsibilities and the people are not liking all this.”

“I had called a meeting of some top leaders [of the party] on July 6 and was to discuss some questions pertaining to changes in the organisation. Before that, some colleagues took a completely different stance and are today claiming to be the party. Things will be clear before the public in next two-three days. So, I am not worried about what happened. Just wait for some days more,” said Mr. Pawar.

He claimed he never knew that Mr. Ajit Pawar had submitted his resignation as Leader of the Opposition [in the Legislative Assembly].

On Mr. Ajit Pawar’s remark that if the NCP could go with the Shiv Sena [in the MVA government], then why not the BJP, Mr. Pawar said, “This may be his stance, but it is not compatible with the NCP’s principles.”

Questioned whether he would take the NCP rebels to court in the manner of his ally, Shiv Sena (UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray, Mr. Pawar said: “We are not going to get embroiled in legal action… We will let the people decide their fate [of the rebels].”

‘Back Sharad Pawar’

Meanwhile, NCP State chief Jayant Patil, along with newly appointed Leader of the Opposition Jitendra Awhad, held a press conference in Mumbai and said the party cadre stood united behind Mr. Pawar.

“Neither Mr. Pawar nor the NCP cadres support this move [by Mr. Ajit Pawar and others]. They stand as one behind Mr. Pawar. They are hurt by what has happened…But it is our belief that whenever such a crisis has erupted, Mr. Pawar emerges even stronger,” said Mr. Patil, a known rival of Mr. Ajit Pawar within the NCP.

He further said that while he did not blame the other MLAs whose signatures were taken to show they supported Mr. Ajit Pawar, the nine NCP leaders including Ajit who were sworn in had taken a decision beyond the pale of party decorum.

Meanwhile, even as Mr. Pawar said the MVA coalition stood united, the Congress watched the shenanigans within Mr. Pawar’s party with growing wariness, with a number of senior Congressmen stating they saw this coming.

Speaking to The Hindu, senior Congressman and former Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said the BJP taken Mr. Ajit Pawar on board as “insurance” against the strong likelihood of the sword of disqualification hanging over the heads of Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and his rebel Shiv Sena faction.

“This has been on the cards for quite some time now. I have publicly said that a section of the NCP leaders have been hobnobbing with the BJP. This is the ‘ED’ faction [those threatened by the agencies] of the NCP which has taken such a step…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 before the second week of August. The question is has Mr. Ajit Pawar been promised the CM post by the BJP in the event Mr. Shinde gets the axe?” asked Mr. Chavan.

Anti-defection law

He said a crucial point was whether Mr. Ajit Pawar had the support of 37 legislators within the NCP to help him stave off the anti-defection law.

“By claiming that a number of the NCP MLAs, who allegedly expressed support for Mr. Ajit Pawar, are still in touch with him, Mr. Pawar has set the cat among the pigeons. If Ajit has less than 37 [of the 54 NCP MLAs] with him, and if Mr. Pawar can claim the support of even 20 MLAs, then Mr. Ajit’s enterprise will collapse,” Mr. Chavan said.

As equations between the three MVA allies remain in a state of limbo following Mr. Ajit Pawar’s move, Mr. Chavan said the Congress was resolutely offering resistance to communal forces and that the party welcomed all those who joined in the fight.

Senior Congressman Vijay Wadettiwar, stating that Mr. Ajit Pawar’s move to join the ruling government was “expected”, said people would never forgive such flip-flopping.

“It was going on for a lot of time…Sharad Pawar had tried to make him [Ajit] understand, but he was not willing to listen. Perhaps Ajit Pawar, too, had some compulsions. But this kind of dirty politics has never happened before in Maharashtra. The Congress and the MVA will present a strong alternative before the public after this,” he said.

Meanwhile, Shiv Sena (UBT) faction spokesperson Sanjay Raut said Maharashtra would soon be seeing “a new CM” while remarking that what transpired was “not a political earthquake as it was bound to happen.”

“Maharashtra will soon see a second swearing-in and will get a new CM…From this it is clear that the Shinde-Fadnavis government is uneasy. Even after claiming to have the support of 170 MLAs, they need Mr. Ajit Pawar and his group to prop them up. This can only mean that Mr. Shinde and his MLAs stand to be disqualified and Mr. Shinde will soon be losing his CM’s post.”

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