ON 7 DECEMBER 2012, Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan reinstated Ajit Pawar as the deputy CM of Maharashtra, a post he was forced to step down from on 25 September after his name figured in a multi-crore irrigation scam during his tenure as the state’s water resources minister from 1999 to 2009. The position had been lying vacant despite contenders like former deputy CM Chhagan Bhujbal waiting to stake claim.
A day before the winter session of the Maharashtra Assembly began on 10 December, the main Opposition parties, including the Shiv Sena and the BJP, hit out at the government with a “Black Paper” to counter the White Paper brought out in November by the state’s water resources ministry on irregularities in irrigation projects. Resenting the reinstatement of Ajit Pawar, they also boycotted the tea session hosted by the CM.
That there is enough evidence of Ajit flouting norms to dole out contracts to his cronies has been exposed by journalists and activists, including YP Singh, who presented documents at a press conference that purportedly incriminated the Pawar family. TEHELKA’s investigation too exposed the financial irregularities in the irrigation department. “The White Paper provides details of transactions that took place in the irrigation department, also under the Shiv Sena-BJP government. It does not give Ajit Pawar a clean chit,” says a bureaucrat on condition of anonymity.
While the NCP cried foul saying the activists were instigated by the CM, who wanted a clean slate for his government, the irrigation controversy, which is as complicated as the Adarsh scam, is not a result of tumultuous relations between the NCP and the Congress, as the chain of events since January 2012 suggests. Sharad Pawar’s resignation drama (from the Union Cabinet) achieved little except displaying the familiar “Pawar Play”. It was not just his prime ministerial ambition, but also a position of power in Maharashtra for his daughter Supriya Sule that he saw slipping away to Ajit, who now controls most of the young and influential cadres of the NCP.The incriminating evidence is not only against the way the irrigation department functioned during Ajit’s tenure, but also in the previous Sena-BJP regime. So the question that needs to be asked is: why has Ajit been singled out? Why has the attack of the Shiv Sena-BJP focussed singularly on Ajit? Interestingly, on 12 December, the Shiv Sena offered to make Sharad Pawar its nominee for the PM’s post, should he wish to join the NDA.A precursor to this episode, if insiders are to be believed, was Sharad Pawar’s insistence on giving Bal Thackeray a State funeral, which the CM had to oblige with. Neither Home Minister RR Patil (from the NCP) nor the NCP supremo has spoken out against the shifting of Thackeray’s memorial after the controversy erupted. That perhaps explains the Opposition’s silence on Sharad Pawar’s complicity.
Indeed, it is a well-known fact that Ajit could not have doled out the irrigation contracts without Sharad Pawar’s knowledge. “In December 2009, when Ajit Pawar was the irrigation minister, Loksatta exposed that he had given two projects worth Rs 1,385 crore to Pune-based builder and contractor Avinash Bhosale. Can Sharad Pawar deny any knowledge of this or of his proximity with Bhosale?” asks Kumar Ketkar, editor of the Dainik Divya Marathi.
THE FACT that Ajit learnt the tricks of the trade from Sharad Pawar was evident even in 2004, when the Congress-NCP coalition returned to power. A relatively young Ajit, who had entered politics as the chairman of a sugar cooperative, thought the time had come for him to stake claim to the CM’s chair. His uncle Sharad Pawar, who was 38 when he broke away from the Congress in 1978 to become the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra by forging an alliance with the Janata Party, had perhaps instilled in him the burning desire for the top post.
Son of Anantrao Pawar, who worked for the popular Rajkamal Studio established by V Shantaram, Ajit had worked his way up from the grassroots. After strengthening his position in the powerful sugar lobby and cooperatives of Maharashtra, which have a strong NCP hegemony, Ajit worked as a Cabinet minister in successive Congress governments led by Sushil Kumar Shinde and Vilasrao Deshmukh.
In the 2004 Assembly election, when Sharad Pawar’s NCP secured more seats than the Congress, the veteran leader was offered the position of CM, but he had his eyes set on Delhi. His only daughter Supriya Sule was yet to be initiated into politics, and there was pressure within the NCP to choose the CM from among the party’s popular leaders. Ajit, then 45, was already a force to reckon with in the NCP; his only rival was the current PWD Minister Chhagan Bhujbal. However, Vilasrao Deshmukh too was lobbying hard with the Congress high command for the CM’s post.
This was Ajit’s tryst with his uncle’s brand of politics. Amid political posturing on staking claim to the CM’s post, the senior Pawar had made up his mind. Vilasrao Deshmukh would be the CM and this was communicated to Sonia Gandhi. An astute politician, Sharad Pawar could foresee the growing clout and trouble that his nephew was capable of, if given a position of power. Ajit learnt his lesson and worked as shrewdly as his uncle to spread his network, while the latter went about his ‘Mission PM’.
EIGHT YEARS later, with Ajit Pawar almost re-anointing himself as the deputy CM without seeking Sharad Pawar’s approval, the singular attacks by the Opposition, which had so far maintained silence, reeks of connivance. The senior Pawar finds himself in a Catch-22 situation. For a man whose ambition to become the prime minister of India is an open secret, all efforts to pass on his position of power in the state to his daughter Supriya are turning futile. With his re-induction in the Cabinet and the show of support within the NCP, Ajit has made it clear that he would never give way to Supriya.
What has added to Sharad Pawar’s misery is the clear indication by his confidantes that they would not have Supriya replace him in the NCP, should he wish to step down as party president. Sources in the NCP suggest that Sharad Pawar today is facing the biggest battle of his political career. The White Paper on irrigation is just a symptom of the power struggle between the uncle and the nephew.
Many in the NCP believe that Pawar now finds himself isolated for not having come to his party colleagues’ rescue when they needed his backing. Despite his bargaining prowess, he could not help Praful Patel retain the civil aviation ministry. According to sources, Pawar was upset with Patel for not having bailed out Vijay Mallya, and hence didn’t go the whole hog to save him.
Another leader close to Pawar, but now miffed by the latter’s manoeuvres, is Chhagan Bhujbal. Bhujbal, who had to step down in 2010 as deputy CM after Ajit’s rebellion, was apparently contemplating joining the Congress when files pertaining to his tenure as PWD minister were leaked to the media. The files showed that he had given the Maharashtra Sadan contract to family members. Who leaked the files is still unclear, but it forced Bhujbal to stay back.
However, in the ongoing power struggle between the uncle and the nephew, a multi-crore scam seems to have got buried and a shrewd Congress high command finds an ally in the form of Ajit Pawar. Clearly, the power game has only begun in Maharashtra.