Nationalist Congress Party Chief Sharad Pawar recently asked for the resignations of all his ministers in Maharashtra. It was thought that this was his way of getting the corrupt removed from the NCP-Congress coalition government. It took Pawar three days to present his new ministers to the public and there were no surprises in store. All those accused of corruption returned. The continuance of Ajit Pawar, Chhagan Bhujbal, Sunil Tatkare and Dr Vijay Kumar Gavit, all of whom face serious corruption allegations, indicated that the rejig had nothing to do with propriety; it was just a shuffling of portfolios at most.
Pawar skipped the swearing-in ceremony but Ajit Pawar was ready with replies on why tainted ministers were not kept out. “The allegations against any of them have not been proven. There is no question of dropping the ministers,” he told the media.
Caste and regional considerations have been central to Sharad Pawar’s politics. He probably believes that the electorate will forget about corruption in the next election too. He is wrong. The elections of 2014, whether Lok Sabha or Assembly, will probably be about corruption. Activists like Anna Hazare, Arvind Kejriwal and Baba Ramdev are likely to whip up emotions among enraged voters. They will not let them forget that they can change things with their ballot.
Interestingly, post-reshuffle Ajit Pawar, who faces serious corruption charges for his alleged role in the state’s irrigation scam, has consolidated his position and emerged stronger. He has been arm-twisting his uncle for a bigger role in Maharashtra politics. The reshuffle shows that Pawar has run out of options when confronted with his nephew’s aggression and ambition.
The Congress half of the Maharashtra cabinet is not free of charges either. But the difference is that their leaders aren’t talking about eradicating corruption. The Congress’ top leader, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, is a man of integrity, and that to some extent restrains the corruption of his ministers. With Ajit Pawar leading the NCP pack, there is nothing to mitigate this splinter party’s corrupt image.
Pawar had also asked that with a General Election approaching, senior party leaders, including Ajit and Bhujbal, be more involved in party matters. But no one is keen on putting aside ministerial ambitions for party work. There was a time when Pawar could dictate anything and his partymen would follow it unquestioningly. But those days are gone. The day he anointed his daughter Rajya Sabha MP Supriya Sule as his political successor, he made an enemy of his nephew. Almost immediately, Ajit appointed himself second-in-command of NCP matters in Maharashtra. He has also started grooming his son Parth for a more active role in the party.
When Sharad Pawar took the resignation of his ministers, it was an opportunity to start building a clean image for his party. That he failed has partly to do with his losing his hold on the party. He announced some time ago that he wouldn’t contest the 2014 polls. It sent a signal to his partymen that he has relinquished his dream to be India’s Prime Minister some day. It had been an ambition that gave him an aggressive drive throughout his career. This in turn had a cascading effect on his party workers. His decision to not contest appears to be a signal of having given up. It has made senior party leaders jittery. If Ajit Pawar takes over the reins, those loyal to his uncle may not find place in the new scheme of things. A whisper about the NCP chief’s failing health is also getting louder. There is no confirmation of this, but party workers believe that his decision to not contest next year is due to it. Pawar has been operated on for cancer. He seems to have lost weight. Whether this is due to a diet regimen or ill health has become a subject of speculation.
Senior NCP leaders who have chosen to sit on the fence say that they are disappointed with Pawar. “Saheb does not look so powerful at the Centre [either]. 2014 is his last chance. NCP may not be that strong thereafter,” says a senior NCP leader. At a minimum, what he should be doing is countering his nephew’s efforts to take over the party. This may be his last chance to do it.