NCP split– BJP’s master stroke or self-goal ?

The opposition parties rally behind the beleaguered NCP patriarch, Sharad Pawar, after his nephew, Ajit Pawar, led a faction out of the party to join hands with the Shinde-led Maharashtra government. Has the BJP bitten off more than it can chew by ‘fomenting’ the NCP crisis?  A report by Amit Agnihotri

The opposition parties attacked the BJP for trying to break their unity ahead of the 2024 national polls by targeting Sharad Pawar’s NCP and said the saffron party’s plan would not succeed.

The Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena UBT, which are part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi in Maharashtra, said the BJP had split Shiv Sena last year and was now targeting NCP to dent the opposition unity ahead of assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the state next year. The TMC and the SP also slammed the BJP.

“The BJP’s dirty tricks department is working on overdrive in Maharashtra. This is not a legitimately elected government, but an ED-facilitated power grab. The Maharashtra government is a product of corruption and sin. The people have very well identified the traitors, corrupt and compromised leaders of Maharashtra and each of them will be taught the lessons of their lifetime in the next elections,” Congress leader KC Venugopal said.

Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh said, “Clearly, the BJP’s Washing Machine has resumed its operations. A number of new entrants into the BJP-led alliance in Maharashtra today had been facing serious corruption charges with ED, CBI and Income Tax authorities after them. Now they have all got a clean chit.”

“Principles be damned, BJP should be the last party in the country talking about ideological alliances. They are just political opportunists wanting power at any cost. With the latest developments in Maharashtra, those MLAs who were corrupt and were jailed are now being sworn in as ministers,” said Shiv Sena UBT leader Priyanka Chaturvedi.

“Maharashtra has become a new laboratory for the BJP. By hook or crook, the BJP wants to be in government,” said Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav.

“PM says ‘I am a guarantor against corruption’, but we saw in Maharashtra that those with corruption cases against their names were inducted into the alliance to form the government,” TMC leader Abhishek Banerjee said.

The NCP suffered a jolt when leader of the opposition in Maharashtra assembly, Ajit Pawar, nephew of Sharad Pawar, took oath as deputy chief minister on July 2 in the presence of chief minister Eknath Shinde (Shiv Sena) and deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis (BJP).

Ajit claimed the support of majority MLAs and said he would fight the 2024 national polls along with BJP. Later, both Ajit and Sharad factions held separate NCP meetings to show strength. Ajit claims he has 40 out of the 53 MLAs but Sharad says it is not true.

Sharad Pawar, 83, put up a brave front and said he was not worried over the revolt by his nephew Ajit. Pawar said he was receiving support from various corners of the country and would rebuild the NCP again. “I received a call from West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, and that is why I am not worried,” he said.

Ajit slammed his uncle and said it was time for him to retire and pass on the baton, to which Sharad Pawar replied that his age did not matter as he was still effective.

Asserting that he was not old yet, Sharad Pawar echoed former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s words, saying, “Na tired hu, na retired hu.” (I am neither tired nor retired). “Do you know at what age Morarji Desai became the prime minister? I don’t want to become the PM or a minister but only want to serve the people,” Pawar said.

Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi also spoke to Sharad Pawar and extended his support to the Maharashtra veteran. Sharad Pawar was the architect of the Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance in 2019 and was able to convince both then Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to support Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray as the new chief minister.

It was Pawar who had guided Uddhav to drop the Sena’s long-standing alliance with the BJP and start a new chapter in Maharashtra politics. Initially, Sonia Gandhi was reluctant to back Uddhav as chief minister given Sena’s strong links with BJP but later agreed to Pawar’s proposal.

The Congress, which had just 44 MLAs in the 288 member Maharashtra assembly, had been initially reluctant to support a Sena leader as chief minister but was later convinced by Sharad Pawar whose NCP had 53 MLAs but was able to play the king-maker.

In June last year, the BJP took its revenge from Uddhav by engineering a split in the Shiv Sena and making rebel Eknath Shinde the new chief minister. Former chief minister and BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis was named the deputy chief minister to ensure that Shinde brought the majority Sena MLAs along with him.

After the last year’s split, there was a tug of war between the Shinde and the Thackeray factions who claimed that they were the original Sena. Both Shinde and Thackeray claimed to be the real custodians of the Shiv Sena formed by Uddhav’s father late Bala Saheb Thackeray. Later, the Election Commission allotted the party symbol to the Shinde faction leaving the Shiv Sena UBT a separate party.

Since then, the Congress, Sena UBT and NCP have been fighting the BJP together and plan to do so in the 2024 national polls. Sharad Pawar has been playing a crucial role in Rahul Gandhi’s plans to forge an anti-BJP platform at the national level ahead of the next Lok Sabha elections.

The first such meeting of 15 like-minded parties took place in Patna on June 23, where Sharad Pawar and his daughter Supriya Sule, also the working president of the NCP, had attended the conclave.

Ajit Pawar, who had been left out of the NCP’s succession plan announced by Sharad Pawar, was reportedly miffed over the opposition meeting. Interestingly, the NCP coup took place days before the next opposition meeting in Bengaluru on July 14.

Though Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is being credited for organizing the Patna show, Pawar’s role in the scheme of things could be gauged from the fact that he, and not Kharge, announced that the second meeting of the 15 like-minded parties would take place in Bengaluru on July 14 instead of Shimla on July 12 where the grand old party was to host the event.

Though there were initial reports quoting JD-U leader KC Tyagi that the opposition meeting had been deferred, the Congress asserted that the gathering would take place on July 17 and 18 in Bengaluru where the parties would present a roadmap to defeat the BJP in the 2024 national polls.

However, the latest NCP crisis was deep rooted as even senior party leaders like Praful Patel, Chhagan Bhujbal and Aditi Tatkare, who were Sharad Pawar’s loyalists, joined the state government along with Ajit Pawar.

Praful Patel said he felt like ‘laughing’ listening to the claims of leaders at the opposition meeting in Patna on June 23 and noted that parties with one or no MPs were claiming to bring about a change. Patel claimed that last year, the legislators and ministers of the undivided NCP had requested Sharad Pawar to go with the BJP when the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA government was on the verge of a collapse. “If we could accept the ideology of the Shiv Sena, what is the objection in going with BJP,” he said.
Opportunity for MVA
The Congress said that Ajit Pawar joining the Maharashtra government as deputy chief minister had exposed the BJP and showed that the saffron party’s earlier experiment of breaking the Shiv Sena had failed.
The Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena UBT claimed that they will fight the coming Lok Sabha polls together and the BJP had tried to break NCP as it feared the MVA would get most of the 48 parliamentary seats in Maharashtra. The Sena UBT described Ajit joining the government as a three-wheeler government in which the front wheel CM Shinde was punctured.

The Sena UBT also claimed that the BJP had inducted Ajit to sideline Shinde and would soon promote Ajit as chief minister as the saffron party needed a Maratha leader to head the alliance government.

The Sena UBT further said that the BJP’s moves to break the Sena last year and NCP now had exposed the saffron party and that the voters were not happy over such politics. They cited that the BJP had earlier sworn Ajit as deputy chief minister in 2019 to break the MVA but he soon returned to the NCP.
The Sena UBT leaders claimed that many MLAs who had left the party to join the Shinde faction now wanted to return to work with Uddhav Thackeray.
“Since the NCP’s leadership change issue surfaced recently, we had been speculating that Ajit Pawar, who was not made Sharad Pawar’s successor, would be upset. But his joining the Shinde-Fadnavis government shows the BJP is behind the entire episode. They had lured him in 2019 and they have lured him again. They wanted to weaken the MVA ahead of the assembly and the Lok Sabha polls. Ajit’s exit may dent the NCP as he claims several MLAs are with him but for us, Sharad Pawar and his daughter Supriya Sule are the party. How Sharad Pawar deals with the issue remains to be seen but the MVA is going to be intact,” said a senior Congress leader.
The Congress said the coup in the NCP was unfortunate but the crisis has provided an opportunity to the grand old party to re-strengthen in Maharashtra. As a result, the leader of the opposition post in the assembly, held by Ajit Pawar, would also come to the Congress.
The NCP has 53 MLAs in the house while the Congress has 45. The LoP post had therefore gone to the NCP as it was the single largest party in the opposition post the breaking up of the Shiv Sena last year.

The NCP crisis created the buzz of a possible alliance between Uddhav Thackeray and MNS chief Raj Thackeray. The buzz started after MNS leader Abhijit Panse met Sanjay Raut, leading to speculation about a possible truce between the estranged Thackeray cousins against the backdrop of the changed political situation in Maharashtra.

Shiv Sena UBT leader Sanjay Raut said that Sharad Pawar’s fight against the revolt in his party at this age was inspiring and clarified that there was no need for any mediator to initiate talks between Maharashtra Navnirman Sena president Raj Thackeray and Uddhav Thackeray, as both were brothers.

However, MNS chief Raj Thackeray also met chief minister Eknath Shinde, fuelling speculation about him backing the Shiv Sena.

Recently, Sanjay Raut had claimed that about 20 MLAs from Shinde’s group were in touch with his party since Ajit Pawar joined the state government.

On his part, Sharad Pawar started a mission to rebuild the NCP saying he will visit Nashik, Pune, Solapur and parts of the Vidarbha region, which were constituencies of rebels Chhagan Bhujbal, Dhananjay Munde and other MLAs. The veteran kicked off his state-wide tour from Yeola in Nashik, the assembly constituency of Bhujbal. “You can criticise my policy and programmes but no personal attacks,” Pawar warned Bhujbal who has been a close aide for three-decades. The veteran said that usually he was right in judging people but had made a mistake in the case of Bhujbal.

BJP-Sena’s woes
While the BJP-Sena claimed advantage following the split in NCP, the saffron party faced questions how it would work in seats it had been fighting Sharad Pawar’s party for the past four decades.
Also, the BJP’s move to make some of the new MLAs who came with Ajit Pawar ministers, had upset the Shiv Sena MLAs. Also, several BJP leaders were waiting to get cabinet berths but it was not possible to accommodate all of them.
For the record, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde stressed that Ajit Pawar’s entry into the ruling coalition posed no threat to him. “With our government now made up of three parties, the strength of our MLAs is more than 200. Our government is only getting stronger. We have the support of PM Modi and HM Amit Shah,” said Shinde.

However, deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis met with Chief Minister Eknath Shinde several times amid reports that Shiv Sena legislators had been reportedly upset after the NCP faction led by Ajit Pawar joined the state government. Ajit Pawar’s remark that he “wanted to be the Chief Minister” had also created a flutter in political circles.

Fadnavis said that cabinet expansion will take place soon and asserted that his party doesn’t engineer splits in other parties but noted that it never stops those who want to come along.
BJP leader Pankaja Munde, who had been upset over the recent developments, came out and said she was taking a two-month break from politics. She also said that new experiments were being done in Maharashtra politics. “The BJP has 105 MLAs. Many of them are dissatisfied but can’t speak out because they are afraid. Narendra Modi had said ‘na khaunga na khane dunga’ (I won’t tolerate corruption) and people had liked that slogan.”
Amid the claims from both sides, Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar served notice to MLAs of the Shiv Sena led by Eknath Shinde as well as 16 legislators belonging to Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena UBT asking why their membership should not be terminated following disqualification proceedings. Narwekar asked them to reply to the notice in seven days.
Reacting to the move, Shiv Sena UBT chief Uddhav Thackeray said the show cause notice issued to all 54 Sena MLAs by Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar was in accordance with the Supreme Court order and nobody could escape it. “The Supreme Court verdict is crystal clear. The Speaker will have to make a decision in that framework. Any decision outside of it will be against democracy and I am sure that the Speaker will not do such a thing. And if it is done, we can always approach the court again,” said Thackeray.