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What is Sharad Pawar up to in India? Ahead of the opposition’s next big meeting in Mumbai at the end of the month, there is a lot of unease amongst the INDIA alliance partners about Pawar senior’s next moves, prompting some surprising public criticism by allies like the Shiv Sena UBT.

This comes after the veteran Maharashtra politician held a marathon secret meeting last week with his nephew and now BJP ally and Deputy Chief minister Ajit Pawar.

In July, Ajit Pawar split the NCP and joined hands with the BJP but there has been intense speculation about whether Pawar senior was in on it. On the record, Sharad Pawar has maintained he is very much a part of the INDIA alliance.

But his repeated meetings with Ajit Pawar have confused many. They met three times in July after the party split and their last meeting, which was held secretly at the home of a prominent Pune real estate developer, lasted for over four hours.

As news of this “secret meeting” got out and speculation swirled, Sharad Pawar insisted at a public event that this was just a family meeting. “Ajit is my nephew. I am the eldest person in the Pawar family. Meeting a younger person in the family or calling him to meet is nothing wrong,” he said, adding that “ the NCP’s political stand does not include joining hands with the BJP. None of us are with the BJP.

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Some of our colleagues have taken a different position and therefore a few friends of ours are trying to reconcile and check if that changed position can be reversed. For that, they are trying to communicate with us. But I want to clearly state in my capacity as the national president of the NCP that there is no question of the NCP allying with the BJP”.

Sharad Pawar’s departure?

None of this has pacified his allies. Just a couple of weeks ago, on the 1st of August, Sharad Pawar created ripples in the INDIA alliance when he shared a stage with Prime Minister Modi at an awards function and felicitated the PM. At that time, Mr. Pawar’s allies tried to convince him to pull out of the event but he refused.

Despite his public denials about joining hands with the BJP, Mr. Pawar’s allies want him to take a stronger, clearer stand. The Congress has openly said that the meetings between Pawar senior and his nephew Ajit have caused confusion.

Maharashtra Congress chief Nana Patole met Shiv Sena ( UBT) chief Uddhav Thackeray after which he said “we feel that there should not be any confusion among people and MVA workers about the meeting between Sharad and Ajit Pawar. We believe that the people look at the MVA as a united front and no confusion should be created about us".

The Shiv Sena (UBT) also took the unusual step of criticising Sharad Pawar in its mouthpiece ‘Saamna’, saying that repeated meetings with his nephew were “tarnishing Sharad Pawar’s image” and creating confusion in the minds of the electorate.

Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Sanjay Raut told ‘The Indian Express’ that “the MVA will prefer to have a clear-cut stand from Sharad Pawar on this count. If something like this continues, the confusion among voters will continue to grow and will prove harmful to us. The ball is in the court of senior Pawar to declare a firm stand with regard to the Ajit Pawar camp and the BJP.”

The INDIA alliance has reason to worry. Maharashtra is an important state in the Lok Sabha, with as many as 48 seats, the second largest state after Uttar Pradesh which has 80 seats. If the Maha Vikas Aghadi or MVA alliance of the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena had stayed united, it was a formidable opponent to the BJP.

But much has changed in the last one year, with the BJP successfully splitting the Shiv Sena and installing Eknath Shinde of the breakaway faction as Chief Minister, and now splitting the NCP and installing Ajit Pawar as Deputy Chief Minister.

All of this has weakened the opposition fight in the crucial state. Sharad Pawar’s departure would only deepen that crisis. As to what Mr. Pawar will do next- anyone who claims to know his mind is stretching the truth. He is a very canny politician and frankly, anything is possible.