NCP succession race looks settled as of now

Ajit Pawar has made a grand comeback in less than a month of rebelling against his uncle and creating a short-lived alliance with the BJP. This has enormous implications on the NCP succession plan

The portfolio allocation for the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) has been finalized on Sunday 5th January 2020, about six days after cabinet and state ministers from the three constituent parties (Sena, NCP and Congress) took oath. The Uddhav Thackeray government will start functioning now in the true sense. From the portfolio allocation, it is clear that Sharad Pawar has ensured that this is essentially a NCP government with a Chief Minister from the Shiv Sena. Most of the lucrative and sought after portfolios like home, finance, irrigation, health, rural development etc. have been retained by NCP ministers. Approx 80% of the the annual state budget is allocated to the portfolios allocated to the NCP. This has caused heartburn among the Shiv Sena MLAs and the Congress state leadership. Congress held up the portfolio distribution for a few days by demanding additional portfolios, but their demands were not fulfilled.

Uddhav_Ajit_PAwar
CM Uddhav Thackeray and Deputy CM Ajit Pawar of the MVA government

The name which raised eyebrows in the portfolio allocation list was that of the new anointed Deputy Chief Minister and state Finance minister Ajit dada Pawar. The nephew of NCP supremo Sharad Pawar was in the news for most of last month. Ajit did not seem comfortable during the alliance talks going on between the Sena, NCP and  Congress. He stormed out of the talks on an occassion and had to be pacified by his uncle. Then Ajit dada created a stir by taking an early morning oath as Deputy CM, along with Devendra Fadnavis. He then backtracked within three days and went back to the NCP.

The revolt of Ajit dada seemed genuine and it brought into limelight the question of succession in the NCP. The NCP supremo Sharad Pawar is facing a big dilemma regarding who to anoint as his successor. Would he choose his daughter Supriya Sule or his nephew Ajit Pawar? Nephews have been rather bothersome and tricky to handle in Maharashtra politics. Late Balasaheb Thackeray and Late Gopinath Munde were two big political personalities who had to face revolt from their nephews, when they chose their own kids as their political successor.

Ajit Pawar has been in state politics since the last 30 years and though he is believed to be a hot tempered and arrogant individual, he is also is widely believed to be an efficient administrator and grass roots linked leader. He has risen up organically from the local body (ZP) politics to state politics and has been the Deputy CM of the state once before. He has handled several important positions in the state ministry over the years. Many of the NCP MLAs in the state are personally obliged to him for bringing/ mentoring them into politics and helping them setup co-operative sugar mills of their own.

Supriya Sule on the other hands is the typical Lutyens elite type. Her influence in Delhi would be much more than that over her partymen in the state. Plus it does not help that NCP is a sub-regional party with half of it’s legislative strength coming from Western Maharashtra, where the politics is still patriarchial and the cadre and MLAs would prefer a male leader over a female leader. Despite this handicap, Supriya tai has proved her mettle as a parlimentarian and has been acknowledged among the best MPs.

The PR for Supriya tai started immediately after Ajit dada’s short-lived rebellion. At that point of time it seemed that Ajit dada has moved out of the succession race in the NCP and would chart his own path. The pictures/ videos of Supriya tai standing near the security gates of the Maharashtra assembly complex and welcoming allies and opponents alike were widely commented on by the media. Media praise was meant to introduce her as a future leader of the NCP. Sharad Pawar also brought his grand nephew Rohit (Pawar’s elder brother’s grandson) into electoral politics. It seemed that the battle between Ajit Pawar on one side and Supriya Tai / Rohit Pawar on the other side, would never play out following Ajit dada’s exit from the NCP.

However, the shrewd Sharad Pawar realised that in a scenario where he retires from active politics, Supriya and Rohit would be in no position to counter Ajit Pawar, even if he is not in the NCP. He realised that even if Ajit Pawar was unable to poach the NCP MLAs, he could always build build up his party from stratch. As a grass roots linked leader, Ajit would be able to split a sizeable voteshare of the NCP and doom the NCP to sub 50 seat results over the next few election cycles. Hence, Pawar decided to launch attempts to poach back Ajit Pawar from the arms of the BJP.

The real reasons for Ajit Pawar going back into the NCP fold, are not fully yet in the public domain. However, Sadanand Sule (Supriya’s hsuband) and Pratibha Pawar (Sharad Pawar’s wife) met Ajit on the day he walked out of alliance with the BJP. It is likely that they pleaded on behalf of the senior Pawar asking Ajit to not break the party. Ajit seems to have been promised to be given a position of respect and a good ministry in the MVA government (which has subsequently happened as he has been given the Deputy CM position and the finance ministry).

I haven’t seen any recent example where an Indian political leader has rebelled against his own party and then returned back within a week, and not get sidelined. Far from being sidelined, Ajit dada has been given the Deputy CM post and the lucrative finance ministry of Maharashtra (state budget is around 3 lakh crore annually). This incident has reinforced the belief that Ajit dada is the strongest contender of being the senior Pawar’s successor in the state. Supriya tai may be given charge of national politics, but Delhi politics does not matter in Maharashtra politics. Important political players in the state focus more on state politics and are reluctant to fight Lok Sabha elections themselves. They normally appoint their acolytes to fight the Lok sabha elections. Their aspirations are usually to become ministers in the state cabinet and strengthen their own political base.

Ajit dada Pawar has ensured that by getting pretigious ministries and Deputy CM post immediately after his rebellion, he is looked upon as Sharad Pawars successor as of now. If there is any attempt to sideline him in favour of Supriya, he always has the option to create his own party and align with the BJP. Interestingly, Ajit Pawar and BJP leaders like Devendra Fadnavis, Sudhir Mungantiwar etc. have not criticised each other after their short-lived alliance. This must not have been missed by the cunning Sharad Pawar. How would the senior Pawar try to cut Ajit to size and promote Supriya/ Rohit will be interesting to watch in the coming 1-2 years.

In conclusion, we can say that Ajit Pawar has emerged as the second biggest leader in the cabinet after CM Uddhav Thackeray. Ajit Pawar has definitely shown his power by getting the top most position accrued to NCP in the state cabinet, less than one month after his rebellion. I haven’t heard of an instance where an individual (within a big political party) was Deputy CM in two opposing alliances within a timespan of just one month. If you still think that Sharad Pawar has triumphed over his nephew Ajit, then you seriously need to re-think your concepts about political powerplay.