Pawar versus Pawar Again

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Ajit Pawar’s resignation spells more trouble for the NCP than Congress

MUMBAI ~ It was a day of relative quiet. Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan was headed to Pune to seek the blessings of divinity at one of the well-known Ganesha mandals there. Most members of his cabinet were busy with their own genuflections before the deity. So when the state’s Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar—who is NCP Chief Sharad Pawar’s nephew—resigned from all his official posts, everyone was jolted back to political reality.

The resignation comes in the wake of allegations of corruption in the state water resources department, which is held by Ajit. According to the allegations, he granted project approvals ‘hurriedly’, amounting to Rs 20,000 crore, during an eight-month period in 2009. Of these, 32 approvals were granted in a rapidfire three-month frame from June to August 2009. These projects were for the Vidarbha region and were approved without the mandatory clearance of the governing council of the Vidarbha Irrigation Development Corp. Neither the chief secretary nor officials from the state’s finance, planning, agriculture and water resources departments were consulted when these projects were cleared.

The Deputy CM’s resignation, seen as a pressure tactic, surprised even his uncle Sharad Pawar, who, as India’s Minister for Agriculture, was in faraway Kolkata then. His nephew, it seems obvious, had not discussed the matter with him. However, in a face-saving bid, Pawar senior pretended that he had been apprised of the development. “It is a good thing,” he said, “He has shown courage and the party had given [its] consent. The whole party is with him. His resignation will not impact the coalition in Maharashtra.”

If Ajit was hoping that his resignation would adversely impact the Maharashtra government—a coalition between the Congress and NCP—then he is likely to be disappointed. His uncle, in the expectation that ministers close to Ajit would also resign, thus bringing the state government to the brink of crisis, promptly directed all NCP ministers in the state cabinet to send their resignation letters to Madhukar Pichhad, chief of the party’s state unit, instead of the CM.

It was Ajit’s turn to be surprised—by his uncle’s wily counter-offensive. The government in Maharashtra remains stable for now as a result of Pawar senior’s directive. It has also added a new chapter to the ongoing turf war saga between Pawar senior and his nephew. We can expect more fireworks in the run-up to the 2014 Assembly and Lok Sabha polls. Ajit is angry with his uncle “for letting Chavan continue as Chief Minister”. The nephew wants Chavan ejected from office, but the uncle is unwilling to unsettle the coalition.

Ajit’s sudden outburst against Chavan can be traced to the Maharashtra government’s decision to announce a white paper on the functioning of the irrigation department, held by Ajit’s confidant Sunil Tatkare. In recent months, numerous scams involving Tatkare’s family members have made local headlines. High-level inquiries have also been constituted for the same.

When skeletons started tumbling out of the departments held by Ajit, duly splashed across the media, the deputy CM concluded that it was the CM’s doing.

Ajit was facing rough weather within the party too. The Pawar-versus-Pawar war heated up after Supriya Sule, the NCP chief’s daughter, was anointed his political successor. Since that day, Ajit has been in aggression mode, out to establish his sway over the party. With his 25 September resignation, he may have been trying to force his uncle to help overthrow the CM.

Whichever way things turn out, the cracks within the NCP are out in the open. The state unit is dominated by two groups—those who owe loyalty to Sharad Pawar and those who stand by Ajit.

There have also been instances of Ajit publicly telling his uncle to make way for him. Last year, at a gathering held to release a book on Sharad Pawar, a close associate of Ajit expressed a desire to make a biopic on the senior leader and sought his permission to do so. Within minutes, Ajit shot back with, “We (referring to himself and his associate) have all crossed 50 years of age. Now we need to take blessings, not approvals.” The uncle, seated on the dais, maintained a stoic silence.

Not surprisingly, when Sharad Pawar categorically said that the coalition in Maharashtra was stable, he was also telling his nephew to rein back his ambitions. With this, he also conveyed to his nephew that two can play this game of testing each other’s will.

Political circles in Maharashtra are also abuzz with talk of Ajit Pawar leaving the NCP and joining hands with the Shiv Sena, whose chief Bal Thackeray is known to be a friend of Sharad Pawar. By sending out feelers to the saffron party, Ajit is also testing this long-held friendship between the two.

In all his years in politics, Ajit has never faced allegations of corruption. There have been murmurs in the past, but they have largely stayed just that. The current charges of malfeasance in departments directly under his oversight, as well as against ministers close to him, are therefore very bad for his public image. His dream of chief ministership could well be at peril if this scandal works against him.

Though there is also talk that Ajit’s resignation is part of a larger gameplan of the NCP to corner the Congress in Maharashtra (and at the Centre), those in the know rubbish such speculation. It should be seen plainly for what it is, they say: a salvo fired by an ambitious and aggressive nephew at his wily uncle who insists he’s still the boss.