The age game: Ageist Ajit and pugnacious Pawar

Ajit Pawar and Sharad Pawar

“Who are they to tell me to retire? I can still work,” retorted NCP stalwart Sharad Pawar after his nephew, Ajit, questioned his continuing to be the functional head of the Party he founded 24 yrs ago

 “Na tired hoon, na retired”, neither tired nor retired: This is how Nationalist Congress Party patriarch Sharad Pawar responded to jibes about his age. 

 The “age drama” began with Sharad Pawar’s nephew, Ajit, questioning his uncle over his continuing to be the functional head of the Party he founded twenty four years ago.   

The timing couldn’t have been worse, given that the NCP was only days away from completing 24 years: June 10, 1999 is a day marked in the political history of the country when Sharad Pawar broke ranks with the Congress and floated his own Party on the issue of Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin. 

Much water has flown under the bridge since then. Pawar has weathered many a storm but continued to hold sway in his home state and also remain a player on the national scene. It was always his experience rather than age which mattered. 

However, it is one of his bloodline who has raked up the issue: Ajit Pawar his nephew to be precise: 

“You are 83, aren’t you going to stop? Give us your blessings and we will pray that you live a long life”.

Not the one to give in or give up, Pawar retorted: “Be it 82 or 92, I am still effective”. Perhaps he is right because for many of his supporters, Sharad Pawar is a lion who continues to roar. 

“Who are they to tell me to retire? I can still work,” Pawar told media persons in Mumbai even as the crisis within the NCP appeared to be full blown.

On the face of it, Sharad Pawar’s rebellious nephew has upstaged him. Yet, he is no match to his Machiavellian uncle. In fact when he crossed over to shake hands with the BJP, many felt that he had his uncle’s blessings. 

Ajit is now Deputy Chief Minister in the Eknath Shinde government in Maharashtra while senior Pawar is fighting yet another battle to keep his flock together.

While ostensibly parting ways, Ajit not only took with him a substantial number of MLAs but even bargained to have eight others inducted into the state Cabinet and maybe he is still counting. 

As if that was not all, Ajit also declared himself as the Party Chief with his faction claiming to be the “real NCP”. 

If the numbers game is anything to go by, then Ajit does have a basis for projecting himself as the “new leader” of a Party his uncle founded and one he is trying to re-chisel. Meanwhile, Sharad Pawar asserted that he is the chief of the NCP.  

Claims and counterclaims apart, as of now, Ajit has the support of over 30 of the 52 NCP MLAs, even though Praful Patel has claimed the number to be much more: “40 plus MLAs support us” is what Patel said a few days ago. 

Whether this number remains or not, only time will tell because the Sharad Pawar faction is doing what it takes to woo some of the estranged MLAs back.  

Till the recent crisis, Patel was considered to be Sharad Pawar’s right hand man. Hence his leaving and openly coming out in support of Ajit was a bit of a surprise. 

Insiders have confirmed that Patel’s leaving was a “shock”. This is substantiated by what senior leader P.C. Chacko, told media persons: “Pawar did not expect Patel to leave him. When Praful Patel went to see Pawar, he told Praful, the impression outside is that you are closest to me. If you leave me, what will be the message it will convey?”

In fact more than Ajit, it was Patel’s parting ways that sent rumour mills working overtime to fathom whether the crisis was real or whether it was stage-managed.

Equally, it is no secret that Patel was all for an alliance with the BJP. 

Patel is on record to state that last year 51 out of 53 party MLAs had told NCP chief Sharad Pawar that he should explore the possibility of joining hands with the BJP. 

Patel said that then there was a discussion among the MLAs, “but no decision was arrived at”, adding that “now a shape has been given”. 

Whether this new “shape” also means doors opening for accommodating him in the Union Cabinet, Patel was non-committal on the issue.

To say that Patel would grab the first opportunity to join the Modi government would be an understatement.  While this is a given, the fact also remains that Patel was under pressure from the law enforcing agencies. To quote Chacko yet again: “Patel went because he was constantly under threat…his residential building was sealed…the investigative agencies had shifted their office to his house…he was almost in tears”. 

For record, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) has attached four floors of a commercial building belonging to Patel in connection with a money laundering case involving the late gangster Iqbal Mirchi. Patel had earlier been questioned by ED for several hours. 

 But back to the repartee and the age game, Sharad Pawar shot back dragging Morarji Desai into the controversy: “Do you know at what age Morarji Desai became Prime Minister?”. 

 Defending her father, Pawar’s  daughter Supriya Sule, an MP, and according to Patel, “the fulcrum of Sharad Pawar’s actions”,  pointed out that Amitabh Bachchan is 82 and “still working”. 

So also politicians 

Take the example of Mallikarjun Kharge who was elected Congress President at 80; Farooq Abdullah, an MP, is 85; at 90, former Prime Minister H.D.Deve Gowda, campaigned in the state elections held earlier this year; Prakash Singh Badal, who died at 95, contested an election a year before his death; K. Karunanidhi headed the DMK till his death at the age of 94. By these standards, Pawar still has time at hand. 

The BJP, however, has a different set of rules.  

Soon after coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought in a rule barring 75 plus leaders from holding any post either in the Party or Government.

Among the first to bear the brunt were party veterans L.K.Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi followed by a few others.  

However an exception was made in the case of Yeddyurappa who continued as Chief Minister even after he was 75; and ‘Metroman’ E. Sreedharan, who contested an election on a BJP ticket when he was 88 years. 

It is against this backdrop that many stop to ask whether the age bar will apply to Prime Minister Modi or will an exception be made? 

In two years from now Prime Minister Modi will turn 75. This roughly calculates to his being into his third term as Prime Minister in case the BJP wins the 2024 elections and forms the Government at the Centre. 

This could pose a tricky situation given that violating a rule which he himself brought in may not go down well with the people and his image may thus suffer. 

This is something Prime Minister Modi may not settle for given that his supporters have worked 24×7 to give a positive spin to his persona. 

On the other hand, stepping down may be counterproductive both for him and the Party because after wielding so much power it may not be easy for him to walk into the sunset. Also the BJP will lose its only vote-catcher. 

It may thus be a Catch-22 situation and one that Modi may find difficult to juggle around. 

 Irrespective of how things pan out, the countdown has surely begun.