NCP with INDIA or NDA? Sharad Pawar keeps guessing game going
Ajit Pawar was initially critical of Sharad Pawar’s politics after joining the Eknath Shinde government, but now refrains from openly speaking against the NCP patriarch. | File photo

NCP with INDIA or NDA? Sharad Pawar keeps guessing game going

Controversial statement comes just a week ahead of crucial INDIA meeting in Mumbai

The NCP conundrum continues in the aftermath of the last month’s rebellion as party supremo Sharad Pawar has now said that there is no split in the party and Ajit Pawar is their leader.

Talking to the reporters in his home turf Baramati, Pawar said, “There is no conflict that he (Ajit Pawar) is our leader, there is no split in NCP. How does a split happen in a party? It happens when a big group separates from the party at the national level. But there is no such situation in NCP today. Yes, some leaders took a different stance but this can’t be called a split. They can do so in a democracy,” he said.

Interestingly, Pawar has made this statement just a week ahead of the crucial INDIA alliance meeting scheduled to take place in Mumbai. It also comes close on the heels of a similar remark made by his daughter and NCP MP Supriya Sule in Baramati only a day earlier. Sule also said, “There is no split in NCP. Ours is one single party though one group is in power and the other is in Opposition. Ajit Pawar is the senior leader of our party.”

Also read: ‘Secret meetings’ between Sharad, Ajit Pawar matter of concern: Maharashtra Congress chief

Cashing in on chaos

Talking to The Federal, political analyst Abhay Deshpande said, “Sharad Pawar has been consistent in creating confusion right from the day one when Ajit Pawar raised a banner of revolt and joined the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra last month. There are two reasons behind it. First, there is a case of disqualification of NCP MLAs pending before the Maharashtra Assembly Speaker and another with the Election Commission regarding the claim on the party. Secondly, this cloud of suspicion over Ajit Pawar damages his credibility, which would ensure that the votes of BJP and Shiv Sena (Shinde faction) won’t get transferred to his NCP faction. Besides, it will also take a toll on his bargaining power.” Moreover, this confusion in the party will ensure that the fence-sitters at the grassroot level will remain wherever they are right now.

Deshpande said the wily Maratha strongman is playing his cards as per his cleverly crafted strategy, which is precisely the reason that the two factions aren’t coming out in open with the exact number of MLAs who owe allegiance to them. “Even after almost two months of the split in the party only those who took oath as ministers with Ajit Pawar pledged loyalty to him. Surprisingly, there are 10 to 15 MLAs who are seen with both the factions,” he added.

On the possibility of Senior Pawar going with the BJP, Deshpande said he doesn’t see him joining hands with the saffron brigade in the twilight of his political career. “He is quite comfortable in the INDIA alliance and he doesn’t even have any political ambitions that may drive him to the BJP camp. In the past too, Pawar has helped the BJP on various occasions like virtually backing the government at the time of Rafale controversy and Adani-Hindenburg row, but he never joined hands with them.” He, however, said there is a buzz in Mumbai that Senior Pawar’s faction will contest 19 Lok Sabha seats under INDIA alliance next year, while his nephew too will contest equal number of seats with the ruling alliance, and will come together once the elections are over.

Also read: No confusion within MVA, will ensure successful 'INDIA' meeting: Sharad Pawar

Best of both the worlds

Senior Mumbai-based journalist Mrunalini Nanivadekar also attributed Senior Pawar’s strategy to a host of pending legal issues in the aftermath of the split in the party. “He would never like to lose control of the party that he nurtured with his sweat and blood,” she said while talking to The Federal. She said it is also the result of his tactics that there isn’t any bitterness between two factions of the NCP, which wasn’t the case with the Shiv Sena which also faced a split last year, leading to the fall of the MVA government.

Notably, when Eknath Shinde broke away from the Shiv Sena, he and his MLAs faced heat from Uddhav Thackeray and other Opposition parties for allegedly receiving Rs 50 crore each from the BJP. But in the case of the NCP split, no such allegations have surfaced.

Political observers who have seen Sharad Pawar’s career closely felt that he is trying to have the best of both the worlds with his unmatched political acumen. However, they also opined that he may be gaining by making his nephew look dubious in the ruling dispensation, but at the same time he too is under suspicion in the INDIA alliance with some senior Maharashtra Congress leaders voicing concerns about his “secret meetings” with Ajit Pawar.

Also read: Sharad Pawar won't ally with BJP in his lifetime: Sanjay Raut

Conflicting approach

Meanwhile, a “secret” meeting between Sharad Pawar and Ajit Pawar at a business tycoon’s residence in Pune caused a stir in political circles earlier this month. Ajit Pawar later told the media, “The media is giving different kinds of publicity to a meeting that took place between family members, leading to confusion. There is no reason to think that anything unusual transpired at the meeting.”

Interestingly, this was not the first meeting between the uncle and the nephew after the split in the party. Earlier, Ajit Pawar along with senior NCP leader Praful Patel and other NCP ministers met the Senior Pawar on a couple of occasions, fuelling speculations about the rapprochement between the two factions.

However, at the same time, the NCP chief has resumed his rallies across the state in an apparent bid to strengthen his faction ahead of the Lok Sabha elections next year. Addressing the Swabhiman Rally at Beed a few days back, Pawar gave ample hints to both, the BJP and the Ajit Pawar faction, that he would never have any patch-up or any formal business with the BJP.

Later, during his visit to Pune, he also hit out at those who switched sides, saying, “They (the Ajit Pawar faction) say they went for development but this is not at all true. The Centre had initiated an ED probe against them and they left the NCP.” It was not the first time that he made such allegations. He also mentioned how certain leaders like NCP’s Anil Deshmukh and Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Sanjay Raut were ready to face a similar inquiry.

Incidentally, Ajit too was critical of Sharad Pawar’s politics after joining the Eknath Shinde government in Maharashtra, but later he too started to refrain from openly speaking against the NCP patriarch. The fact that the Ajit Pawar faction still uses Sharad Pawar’s photograph on some of its hoardings proves that they are not confident of winning elections without the latter’s support.

Also read: Some members left NCP due to ED probe: Sharad Pawar's veiled jibe at Ajit camp

Equation with BJP

According to political observers, the BJP is aware that Ajit Pawar’s utility for them largely depends on his ability to get his uncle into the BJP fold or at least compel the Senior Pawar to adopt a “neutral approach” and not campaign for INDIA alliance. This is all the more important for the BJP in view of the fact that after Uttar Pradesh Maharashtra is the state that sends the largest number of MPs (48) to the Lok Sabha. However, Sharad Pawar has often declared in his speeches that he would not join the BJP at any cost.

In this scenario, the ongoing stalemate in the NCP doesn’t augur well for the BJP, as the party cannot go on an offensive against Sharad Pawar just to ensure that they don’t end up burning the bridges. At the same time, it has also put Ajit Pawar in a spot, as people will doubt his ability to pull off electoral dividends without his uncle by his side. Moreover, he will have to find ways to deal with the challenge that Senior Pawar will pose in front of him in the electoral arena.

With neither of the factions showing any intent to cross over and unite on one side of the political spectrum, the NCP will most probably face the test of a real split in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections even as the two sides strategically put off a public fight over the party’s name and symbol.

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