Maharashtra Governor Ramesh Bais congratulates the newly sworn-in State Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar during a ceremony, as State CM Eknath Shinde and State Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis look on, at Raj Bhavan, in Mumbai on Sunday. Image Credit: ANI

“It’s always better to be a Mantri than a Santri in politics,” proclaimed an erstwhile loyal aide of Sharad Pawar, who recently made a dramatic switch to the waiting arms of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), straight from Pawar’s own drawing room. The senior NCP leader vehemently insisted that his relationship with his respected “saheb” had not changed in the slightest.

In the dynamic world of Maharashtra politics, Ajit Pawar, universally known as “dada,” has now assumed the role of Deputy Chief Minister under Eknath Shinde, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and a former member of the Shiv Sena.

Pawar junior is the nephew of Pawar. None of these developments would come as a surprise to readers of SWAT analysis who’ve known of the nephew’s putative rebellion against uncle who quit as the NCP chief to safeguard his party from BJP’s poaching.

My discerning Gulf News readers are also fully aware of the influential role played by a beleaguered billionaire in brokering this new alliance, facilitated by substantial funds.

This billionaire has been engaged in a flurry of midnight calls and even held a secret meeting with Ajit Pawar aboard a private jet, soaring above the Mumbai skyline for two hours as they negotiated and hammered out the deal. One NCP leader jokingly suggested they should have simply flown to Dubai and gone shopping.

Mumbai, July 02 (ANI): Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar takes oath as the second Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra during the swearing-in ceremony, at Raj Bhavan, in Mumbai on Sunday Image Credit: ANI

Auctioning of Indian Politics

The term “shopped” is aptly used in Indian politics these days, as MLAs are “bought” by the highest bidder after elections. Should a gentle nudge be necessary, investigative agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and Income Tax are always lurking, ready to prod the legislators.

Unsurprisingly, the slew of NCP MLAs who defected alongside Pawar Jr. have a multitude of corruption cases pending against them, ranging from alleged money laundering to involvement in the irrigation scam.

Interestingly, Devendra Fadnavis, who now serves as the joint Deputy CM of Maharashtra alongside Pawar, had previously vowed to imprison him.

Praful Patel, Pawar’s closest aide and former Aviation Minister responsible for procuring aircraft for the erstwhile state-owned Air India, had also been pleading with Pawar to align with the BJP as the agencies closed in on him.

In response to the defections, Sharad Pawar remarked that Modi had cleansed the corruption within the NCP. The Congress party, however, labelled it the BJP’s “laundry service,” suggesting that erstwhile corrupt politicians emerged unblemished.

Let’s take stock of the current state of Maharashtra politics. The original Shiv Sena had allied with the Congress and the original NCP to form the MVA government, led by Uddhav Thackeray.

The BJP poached Shinde, breaking the Sena and establishing a government under his leadership. Now, the BJP has shattered the NCP and appointed Pawar as Deputy CM. Thus, while the regional parties have splintered, the two national parties, Congress and BJP, remain intact.

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Billionaire Brokers Power Play

From the BJP’s perspective, securing Maharashtra’s 48 Lok Sabha seats became a necessity, as the Shinde-Fadnavis government faced widespread unpopularity due to public squabbles between the two leaders. Thackeray’s accusation that Gujarat was prospering at Maharashtra’s expense struck a chord with the sentiment of regionalism, allowing it to resonate with voters.

This sentiment was further fuelled by Gujarat securing the billion-dollar Foxconn Vedanta deal and the subsequent Tata Airbus deal. As the second most industrialised state in India, Maharashtra grapples with significant unemployment issues, which the Shinde government failed to address satisfactorily.

The elections for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) have been postponed for nearly a year due to the BJP’s lack of confidence in winning.

The BMC, with its colossal budget of nearly Rs50,000 crores (more than Dh22 billion), is one of the most coveted prizes in Maharashtra’s electoral politics. Until the BJP fractured the NCP, the MVA trifecta appeared to be a formidable contender in both Maharashtra and Lok Sabha elections.

So, what role does Pawar play in this significant switch? Pawar, known for his enigmatic and opaque politics, is the hardest to read in Indian politics. I once quipped to him that he even surprises himself at times. Pawar smiled and declined to comment.

It would be foolish to underestimate India’s most astute leader. If Pawar has been outmanoeuvred, he can rely on the Maratha sympathy vote, just as Uddhav Thackeray, seen as a “Marathi Manoos” victimised by the BJP, did. Thackeray’s handling of the pandemic and his popular fireside chats to keep the public informed resonated with the people.

What comes next?

Will the billionaire, and an erstwhile political analyst - now aligned with the BJP - work to ensure positive optics for this new alliance?

The two losers in this arrangement are Shinde, whose significance has dwindled with the NCP’s entry in to the alliance and government, and Fadnavis, who transitioned from CM to Deputy CM and now has to share power with Pawar. Fadnavis desires the Shinde faction to join the BJP and secure the CM’s position, a prize Pawar also seeks.

There are obstacles on the horizon. Mind the gap.