Maharashtra’s midnight coup reminiscent of TDP family drama

Ajit Pawar, Chandrababu Naidu
Both Ajit and Naidu chose the midnight muhurat to spring a surprise on their political godfathers | PTI File

The midnight political coup pulled off by NCP leader Ajit Pawar in Maharashtra is eerily similar to the one scripted by former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu to dethrone his father-in-law NT Rama Rao in 1995.

Both the regional parties — Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Telugu Desam Party (TDP) — are family-driven and run by their patriarchs with an iron grip.

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Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari flanked by newly-appointed Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis and Deputy CM Ajit Pawar | PTI Photo

Like Ajit, who rose under the tutelage of his uncle and party founder Sharad Pawar, Naidu was the backroom strategist of the TDP under the watchful eyes of NTR, a towering personality who strode the tinsel world and Andhra politics like a colossus.

Both Ajit and Naidu chose the midnight muhurat to spring a surprise on their political godfathers and break away from the party with a major chunk of party legislators supporting them.

It was on the midnight of August 16, 1995 that Naidu, who was then the finance minister in his father-in-law’s cabinet, held a secret meeting with the TDP legislators at a luxury hotel in Hyderabad and got himself elected as the party leader while NTR had no clue of the impending disaster.

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Overnight, NTR, who founded the TDP in 1982 on an anti-Congress plank and stormed to power nine months later, found himself unseated from power and stripped of the party president’s post.

Similarly, none in the Shiv Sena-Congress-NCP camp had any inkling of junior Pawar’s plans even as the leaders were engaged in a series of meetings, stretching late into Friday night. What is more intriguing is that Ajit was present at some of these meetings convened to discuss the contours of the government formation in Maharashtra.

If Naidu led the revolt against his doting father-in-law to take over the reins of the party and the state, Ajit has engineered a split in the party to share power with the BJP. Their tactics have been similar — scheming, secretive and waiting for the right moment to strike. So is the equation with their mentors — reverential in public but aggrieved in private.

Strained relations

Ajit, a seven-time MLA from Baramati, is the son of Sharad Pawar’s elder brother Anantrao Pawar. Like his uncle, his political rise came through a firm hold on Maharashtra’s cooperative sector. Ever since the formation of the NCP in June, 1999, he was by his uncle’s side but there have been occasional differences within the family.

There were reports that Ajit, who likes to be projected as heir-apparent to senior Pawar, has been distinctly uncomfortable with his cousin Supriya Sule’s entry into electoral politics in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

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The growing importance in the party for the NCP supremo’s grand-nephew Rohit Pawar is believed to have further rankled Ajit. He insisted on fielding his son Parth Pawar from Marvel constituency in the last elections, a move that did not go down well with the senior Pawar who decided not to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Recently, Ajit created a flutter in political circles when he resigned as Baramati MLA claiming he was hurt by the inclusion of his uncle’s name in a money laundering case in connection with the Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank (MSCB) scam by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

Ajit was reportedly cut up with “too many concessions” being given to the Shiv Sena during the negotiations over the government formation. He was unhappy with the chief minister’s post being offered to Shiv Sena for the full five-year term.

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On his part, Chandrababu Naidu also had differences with NTR over certain policy issues, including prohibition. The flashpoint came after NTR’s second marriage to his biographer Lakshmi Parvathi who was half his age. Her growing interference in the party affairs triggered a revolt in the family which ultimately led to his dethronement.

Apart from a majority of the TDP legislators, NTR’s sons, Harikrishna and Balakrishna, and elder son-in-law D Venkateshwar Rao backed Naidu in the family drama.

Impact on families

Within an hour of Ajit being sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister, Sharad Pawar tweeted, saying that his party did not back his nephew’s decision to join hands with the BJP.

“Ajit Pawar’s decision to support the BJP to form the Maharashtra Government is his personal decision and not that of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). We place on record that we do not support or endorse this decision of his,” he tweeted.

This confirmed the speculation that junior Pawar has broken away from the NCP to join hands with the saffron party, though it is still not clear how many MLAs support him.

“Who do you trust in life? Never felt so cheated in life. Defended him (Ajit) and loved him. Look, what I get in return,” Supriya Sule said in a WhatsApp status.

Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut said in a tweet, “Ajit Pawar was with us till last night but he did not make eye contact throughout the meeting. His body language was suspicious and I believe even Sharad Pawar could see it. Ajit Pawar then stepped out and his phone was switched off. We were told he had gone to meet his lawyers, now we know which lawyer this was.”

Crestfallen patriarchs

The internal family revolt came as a big jolt for both the patriarchs. “This is in complete contrast to NCP ideology. An honest NCP worker can never be a part of BJP government formation. I am confident of my NCP cadre,” a visibly upset Sharad Pawar told reporters, hours after the shocking developments.

He also warned the defectors that their “efforts would be wasted” because of the provisions of the anti-defection law. Pawar also asserted that the public opinion was against forming government with BJP.

“If such actions are still taken, people of their constituencies won’t support them. If they resign and go for re-election, we will do everything to defeat them. All three parties (NCP, Congress and Shiv Sena),” he said.

On his part, NTR was crestfallen as well following the revolt and his dethronement. He lost the legal battle to claim control over the party he had founded. During his last days, he used to breathe fire at his son-in-law for “backstabbing him for the sake of power.” Crestfallen and heart-broken, he died in January 1996.