There is something about uncle-nephew relationships in Maharashtra’s politics. Some begin on an earnest note as a nephew is pitched in politics by a doting uncle, but the subsequent falling out is bitter.
One such example is Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) president Raj Thackeray.
But the present political imbroglio in Maharashtra, where Ajit Pawar, nephew of Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) supremo Sharad Pawar, rebelled against his uncle to join hands with the BJP, is different from the usual uncle-nephew saga.
The NCP had almost sealed a deal with the Shiv Sena and the Congress, a month after the Assembly results were declared, signalling an end to the stalemate in Maharashtra. This was caused by the Sena’s dogged refusal to honour its pre-poll alliance with the BJP.
A day later, Ajit Pawar seemingly revolted against his party and the authority of his uncle in an early morning coup. He was sworn in as deputy CM to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis.
Sharad Pawar had openly pitched Shiv Sena boss Uddhav Thackeray as the combine’s chief ministerial candidate. Needless to say, this loss of face will be intense for the Sena, which is the primary adversary of the NCP in large swathes of Maharashtra.
Despite Pawar Senior vehemently stating he was unaware of Ajit’s moves, even dispassionate observers of the Maratha strongman’s brand of power play will question this claim of a man famed for having his ears to the ground. Though Mr Pawar has moved to shepherd his legislators and take action against the politically ambitious Ajit, the final picture may be clear only during the floor test in the Maharashtra Assembly.
Chinese whispers doing the rounds since the Shiv Sena launched parleys with its former ideological foes NCP and Congress suggested that a section of NCP leaders, who feared being probed by Central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate for alleged misdemeanours, could break ranks to join the BJP.
While negotiations between the three parties were on, Congress leaders said they were nonplussed at Mr Pawar dragging his feet on sealing the power-sharing pact.
Despite his long innings in politics, Mr Pawar, who has often been described as a 24x7 politician by even his political adversaries, certainly cannot count consistency as one of his virtues.
Hence, adding to the fog of mystery around the developments is Sharad Pawar’s own track record, something that has relegated him to what his sympathisers claim, is the best Prime Minister India never had.
Since Mr Pawar plunged into electoral politics by becoming an MLA from Baramati in 1967, his career has been characterised by frequent volte faces.
In 1978, Mr Pawar, then in the Congress (Reddy), toppled his party’s alliance government with the Congress(I) to become Maharashtra’s youngest chief minister. Then, he secured the support of the Janata Party, which included leaders from the Jan Sangh, the BJP’s ideological predecessor.
After his government was dismissed by Indira Gandhi in 1980, Mr Pawar merged his Congress(S) into the parent party led by her son Rajiv Gandhi six years later. In 1999, he revolted against Rajiv’s widow Sonia, and was expelled from the Congress. However, within months, his NCP forgot its bitterness to join hands with the Congress for power in Maharashtra. During the time that they ruled the state till 2014, the NCP spared no opportunity to corner the Congress despite being allies.
In 2014, when the BJP, Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP, fought the state Assembly elections on their own, Mr Pawar pulled out another rabbit from his hat.
Senior NCP leader Praful Patel extended outside support to the BJP, which had emerged as the single-largest, yet short of the halfway mark. This brought down the negotiating power of the Shiv Sena, which was the second in terms of bench strength, by conveying that if it dithered on joining the Devendra Fadnavis-led government, the NCP would seize the opportunity.
Senior BJP leaders admit the NCP-BJP bonhomie continued well until 2017.
Like most relationships, Ajit Dada’s blow-hot, blow-cold relationship with his uncle is an open secret. Inducted into the state Cabinet in the 1990s after a brief stint in the Lok Sabha from Baramati, the mercurial Ajit, whose outspokenness often transcends the thin line with arrogance, gradually rose in the ranks, edging out seniors.
In 2004, when the NCP secured two seats more than the Congress, it rather inexplicably handed over the chief minister’s post to the latter. This was attributed to Pawar Senior’s move to cut his ambitious nephew and other contenders to size. The relationship between the two was strained further after Mr Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule entered Parliament.
Mr Pawar’s sympathisers claim “Saheb” wants to see “Supriyatai” as the first woman chief minister of Maharashtra, over-riding Ajit’s claims.
In 2010, when the Congress scalped then CM Ashok Chavan in the Adarsh housing society row, Ajit staged a coup by forcing his uncle’s hand to become the deputy chief minister, forcing out senior leader Chhagan Bhujbal. However, Ajit’s frequent outbursts, including one where he questioned if they should urinate in empty dams, led to a controversy. Charges of impropriety in execution of irrigation projects to the tune of around Rs 70,000 crores in a department once controlled by him also found Ajit in the eye of a storm.
The defeat of Ajit’s son Parth in the Lok Sabha elections, and the victory of Mr Pawar’s other grandson Rohit (grandson of NCP patriarch’s older brother Appasaheb) in the Assembly polls also carry an undercurrent of discord and simmering tensions within the family.
While the jury is out on whether Mr Pawar was hand-in-glove with his petulant nephew or was indeed outfoxed by him, the NCP chief's often dismissive statements about staking claim to power with the Shiv Sena and his long meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ostensibly to seek aid for distressed farmers, has set the cat among the pigeons.
The Marathi movie Sinhasan, penned by journalist-author Arun Sadhu, is a political thriller which unspools a fictional but similar game of thrones being played in Maharashtra. As former foes come together for power and pelf, their selfish, petty ambitions in stark contrast with the squalor of Mumbai’s toiling classes, the protagonist, political reporter Digu Tipnis, is eventually driven insane in this cult classic.
This is perhaps a rational reaction for any sensitive real-life Digu Tipnis, who may be watching the game unfold from the sidelines as farmers commit suicide, the economy still tanks, and slums expand due to distress migrants.