Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar takes oath as the second Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra in Mumbai Image Credit: ANI

On Sunday evening, cavalcade of luxury cars, ironically mostly white in colour, pulled into the Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the governor of Maharashtra. Amidst high drama, most of it captured live on national television, Ajit Pawar, the nephew of Sharad Pawar, defected to the BJP and splintered Shiv Sena ruling alliance.

Sharad Pawar, the founder-president of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the grand old man of Maharashtra politics, was left with the rump of a broken party. Given his own previous record of breaking parties and alliances, some would say that this was fair comeuppance for the 82-year-old wily political fox and survivor.

As to Ajit Pawar, sworn in as the second Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, this was the fifth time in the last thirteen years that he came to occupy the number two slot. Which earned him the unenviable sobriquet of “perpetual deputy CM.” Along with him, nine other members of his party also joined the state’s cabinet.

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India’s richest state

Maharashtra is India’s richest state, located in western India, with Mumbai, the financial capital of the country also serving as its seat of government.

Unfortunately, it has been in political turmoil for quite some time now. The 2019 state assembly elections resulted in a fractured mandate, with none of the major political parties securing a clear majority. The BJP-Shiv Sena ruling coalition collapsed after the latter broke the 25-year alliance.

For just one day, however, the same Ajit Pawar crossed the floor to side with the BJP, being sworn in as the Deputy Chief Minister to BJP Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis. But Sharad Pawar managed to woo his nephew and his disgruntled flock back.

The short-lived alliance did not take the floor test. This resulted in the imposition of President's rule in the state, followed by the formation of a new government.

Shiv Sena, now joined its erstwhile ideological opposites, the Congress and NCP, forming the MahaVikas Aghadi (grand progress alliance) government, with Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray assuming the Chief Ministership. Everyone wondered how long this opportunistic misalliance would last. Almost miraculously, it did last over two and a half years.

Shiv Sena
Eknath Shinde and Uddav Thackeray Image Credit: ANI

Political menage-a-trois

On 29 June 2022, however, Uddhav Thackeray resigned as Chief Minister after a faction of MLAs led by Eknath Shinde split the Shiv Sena and allied with the BJP. Subsequently, Eknath Shinde was sworn in as Chief Minister and Devendra Fadnavis as the deputy Chief minister.

What is more, the Shinde faction won not only the larger share of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), but also captured the name and electoral symbol of the Shiv Sena.

What remains to be seen is if the Ajit Pawar faction will replicate this feat. For that they need at least 36 of the 54 NCP MLAs. If they do not muster this number, they stand to be disqualified under the existing anti-defection law. Shinde’s clout, with Pawar’s induction, has also been reduced. How will these strange bedfellows manage their political menage a trois?

While there are several speculations doing the rounds, one of the reasons for Ajit Pawar’s defection might include his ongoing tussle with Sharad Pawar, the chief of the NCP. But others claim that Sharad Pawar was in the know of things all along, that he is the real chess master moving the pieces of Maharashtra’s game of thrones.

Fadnavis, for instance, has come out publicly on national TV, claiming that Sharad Pawar was in the know even of his nephew’s first rebellion and defection. Lending weight to this theory is Praful Patel, the working President of NCP, who is now in the Ajit Pawar group, but who has not ruled out the reunification of the party.

Some have even called Patel the link between the BJP’s top brass in Delhi and the manipulations in Mumbai, allegedly in return for a central cabinet berth at the appropriate time.

Somewhat of a puzzle

But whatever the real facts or motives, the ongoing political drama has created ripples across the country. Common people might actually resent the chaos caused by the opportunism of their leaders. Many of the defectors have corruption charges and cases against them.

There is a perception that joining the BJP almost instantly results in the soft-peddling or shelving of some of these cases. While everyone is eager to know the reason for Ajit Pawar’s drastic power play, what it means for the future of Maharashtra politics remains somewhat of a puzzle. If nothing else, the present situation has shown the shaky and unpredictable nature of the political scene in Maharashtra.

More importantly, pundits are betting that a similar splitting of opposition parties is imminent elsewhere. Right now, it is clearly advantage BJP, which in state after state has been able to attract defectors from other parties to seize power. Whether this will pay off in the upcoming general and state elections remains to be seen.

Whether turncoats can be digested and converted to the ruling party’s ideology is one question; whether they will ever be trusted is another. Right now, what is clear is that the BJP juggernaut seems unstoppable, while the scattered opposition is on the run.