After the publication of my column, Is Pawar’s resignation for real? a senior Maharashtra leader called and asked, “Since you clearly have some insight into Saheb’s (Pawar is addressed as saheb in the Nationalist Congress Party) [thinking], what will he do next? Will it be the BJP or the Opposition?”
This question goes to the heart of Pawar’s politics as the 82-year-old’s politics puzzle allies and foes while he remains a few steps ahead. But, with the resignation and the predictable withdrawal, has Pawar played his last card?
In his storied career, Pawar has been India’s defence and agriculture minister and the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra at 38. Only one top job is missing from his CV: prime minister of India.
BJP tactics in Maharashtra
Sources close to Pawar say the PM ambition he nursed over several decades doesn’t allow him to ally with the BJP despite persistent wooing from the saffron party.
In Maharashtra, the BJP is desperate to eject Chief Minister Eknath Shinde, who led the Shiv Sena turncoats into an alliance, which was marketed as a “masterstroke” by the adoring media while it looked more like a “power grab”. That’s also BJP’s smash-and-grab plan for the NCP.
Pawar has silently watched his nephew Ajit Pawar being wooed by the BJP with a mix of persuasion (CM’s job) and threat of the central agencies pursuing the cases against him. Similar pressure was applied on other vulnerable NCP leaders, such as Praful Patel, who repeatedly peddled the virtues of allying with the BJP. The use of central enforcement agencies has been key to the Opposition’s capitulation to the BJP.
The BJP will consign Shinde to the dustbin of history to ensure a good performance in the Lok Sabha elections, which is why it dangled the CM bait before Ajit Pawar.
Sources close to Pawar say he had two main points in mind.
The first: the Opposition would do well in Maharashtra with his MVA alliance. Pawar had told Uddhav Thackeray that he was perceived sympathetically — as a leader wronged by his own and as a man who worked hard during the deadly Covid pandemic. Even sections of Muslims, who were wary of the Sena under Balasaheb Thackeray, quietly supported Thackeray.
Second: the Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis show at Mantralaya (CM’s office) has been a disaster, with voters unhappy that they had allowed multi-billion investments to go to Gujarat despite Maharashtra being the second-most industrialised state in India (first is Tamil Nadu). From Foxconn Vedanta to Tata Airbus, all projects have gone to Gujarat even as Maharashtra suffered a huge unemployment crisis.
The 48 Lok Sabha seats of Maharashtra are a massive challenge for all parties, and the BJP is anxious to secure them for the big battle of 2024. On current sentiment, the BJP does not look like a shoo-in for the Lok Sabha seats, hence the desperation to break up a regional party like the NCP and ally with them.
The BJP will consign Shinde to the dustbin of history to ensure a good performance in the Lok Sabha elections, which is why it dangled the CM bait before Ajit Pawar. But, the Pawar senior, with his resignation move, showed the BJP that Pawar junior was devoid of support in his party where Pawar senior’s writ runs. The resignation and its aftermath taught a lesson to Ajit and Patel about where exactly they stood in the NCP.
Pawar senior is clear that if there is any deal with the NCP, he will set the terms. As the general elections loom, the BJP and the Opposition should brace themselves for hard bargaining with the shrewdest leader in the country.