If Maharashtra politics, defined by Bollywood in Mumbai, is a theatrical chess board of Indian politics, the Grandmaster of Maha politics is Sharad Pawar — the doughty Maratha chief of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
Pawar can conjure up unlikely alliances — the Maha Vikas Agadhi that partnered the Congress with Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena and also make a smooth somersault in to a pairing with the ruling BJP.
So as rumours and stories swirled around that Ajit Pawar, nephew of Pawar Sr, was planning to join the BJP and partner with them to form the government — all eyes were on the NCP chief.
After all he had previously gotten his nephew to dump the BJP after a morning swearing in with Devendra Fadnavis for a government that lasted for mere days.
If you know Maharashtra politics, you also know that Pawar junior, who has a burning ambition to be the CM of Maharashtra, having been deputy CM multiple times and an MLA for seven terms, will make no move without his uncle’s explicit permission.
Love-hate relationship with Modi
Fact: Pawar Sr commands absolute loyalty of the NCP MLAs, so the idea that 40 of them were prepared to go with Ajit seemed outlandish.
Combine that with how the Maratha strongman has been making nice with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, bailing him out on the questions surrounding his relationship with the controversial billionaire, Gautam Adani and dismissing that Modi’s academic degree was a political issue, just when Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi chief minister, made a big issue out of it.
At the heart of the overtures made to Pawar is the realisation in the BJP that it is not in a position to win Maharashtra with Shinde and his team. The BJP would need to break one of the three opposition parties. Currently the NCP seems ready to do business. But, when push comes to shove will Pawar actually break ranks with the opposition?
So what were the uncle and nephew playing at? That question has gripped Mumbai, India’s opposition — including Sonia Gandhi and Uddhav Thackeray — and triggered a media frenzy in the country.
Add to it Supriya Sule, daughter of Pawar Sr, saying that a political earthquake would soon take place and you had thousands of trees felled for newsprint and hour after hour of anchors screaming on TV screens.
Shinde-Fadnavis: The great tugging match
So let’s unpack. The NCP leaders and MLAs have been facing heat from the investigative agencies like the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), with several under probe.
90 per cent of the ED cases in India are against the opposition leaders. From Nawab Malik to Praful Patel — close aide of Pawar Sr — the ED heat is being dialled up as the 2024 general election approaches.
Meanwhile for the BJP, toppling Thackeray by breaking the Shiv Sena and partnering with Eknath Shinde may have put them in command but Maha state government serves from a severe image deficit.
Shinde and Devendra Fadnavis (who wants to quickly occupy the top job) are locked in a combat situation and can’t see eye to eye on any administrative matter. This has resulted in lacklustre governance.
The sympathy that Thackeray has received — his image of essentially being a decent, classy guy betrayed by his own — has alarmed most BJP election mavens.
Seeing Shinde as the CM on daily wages at the mercy of the BJP should be a wake up call for Ajit Pawar. The perils of partnering with the BJP are only obvious.
The BJP top brass also realises that Fadnavis will need to be moved out if a stable government has to be created. Hence the new plan to make Fadnavis contest the Pune Lok Sabha by-election and move him to Delhi.
Will Pawar finally make a move?
So what happens to Shinde if Pawar and NCP come on board. Shinde will be history and his bunch of MLAs virtually unelectable. They will have little choice but to return to Thackeray.
At the heart of the overtures made to Pawar is the realisation in the BJP that it is not in a position to win Maharashtra with Shinde and his team.
The BJP would need to break one of the three opposition parties. Currently the NCP seems ready to do business. But, when push comes to shove will Pawar actually break ranks with the opposition?
Pawar is such a shrewd political that even he perhaps doesn’t know the political calculus which will animate him tomorrow.
Officially both nephew and uncle denied the new tie up rumours late yesterday. But, in Mumbai the screenplay can change anytime.
Stay tuned for the latest and fastest scoop in this space.