Ajit Pawar on July 2 pulled off a stunning revolt in the NCP triggering a vertical split and joined hands with the ruling Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra to become the deputy chief minister, a move that could undermine party supremo Sharad Pawar and dent efforts for Opposition unity ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
In a sudden turn of events that capped weeks of speculation over the senior NCP leader’s next political move and came as a shocker to his uncle Sharad Pawar, Ajit Pawar was sworn in as the deputy chief minister by Governor Ramesh Bais at a ceremony held in the Raj Bhawan in Mumbai. Eight other NCP leaders, some of whom are close aides of Sharad Pawar, the 83-year-old wily Maratha strongman who hopes to become a key player in an anti-BJP front, took oath as ministers in the Shinde-Fadnavis government.
While Sharad Pawar, who tried to put up a brave face, called his nephew’s rebellion a “robbery”, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde said, “Now the double engine government has a triple engine.” “This is not a googly but robbery,” he said against the backdrop of the veteran politician and Fadnavis invoking cricket analogy like ‘googly’ in their recent spat over the 2019 political developments after the Assembly polls. A BJP leader had also warned of Fadnavis’ “googlies and bouncers” and that the match was not over.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and party leader Rahul Gandhi spoke with Sharad Pawar and extended support to him, AICC general secretary K. C. Venugopal said on Twitter.
Ajit Pawar defended his decision to share power with the BJP.
“If we can go with the Shiv Sena, then we can go with the BJP as well. The same thing happened in Nagaland as well.” Talking to reporters after taking oath, Ajit Pawar said the NCP decided to become part of the Shinde-led government for the development of the country and praised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership.
Maintaining there was no split in the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) that was founded by his uncle in 1999 after he left the Congress, Ajit Pawar said they would contest all future elections on the party’s name and symbol.
“All the elected representatives (of the party) have supported the decision to join the government.” In a swipe at opposition parties, the BJP asked if their efforts to forge unity in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls were “completely disturbed.” “PDA – Poora (completely) Disturbed Alliance?” BJP national spokesperson Shehzad Poonawalla tweeted.” In a rerun of 2019, Ajit Pawar, 63, becomes the second deputy chief minister in the one-year-old government headed by Eknath Shinde, who had also rebelled against the leader of undivided Shiva Sena and Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray to bring down the government of the MVA comprising the Shiv Sena, NCP and the Congress. Senior BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis is the other deputy chief minister.
It is for the third time under four years that Ajit Pawar dons the role of deputy chief minister under three chief ministers–Fadnavis, Uddhav Thackeray and Shinde.
In November 2019 after the Assembly polls and the split between the BJP and the undivided Shiv Sena, the government of Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar, who were sworn in at a early morning ceremony by Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, lasted just 80 hours as Pawar junior was unable to cause a split in his party. In all, Ajit Pawar was deputy CM five times, including twice before 2019 in a Congress-led government.
Sources close to Ajit Pawar claimed he has the support of more than 40 MLAs and more than six MLCs. A letter of support of these legislators was given to Raj Bhavan, they added. NCP has 53 MLAs and nine MLCs.
But the newly-appointed Leader of Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly Jitendra Awhad of the NCP said the number of party MLAs with Ajit Pawar will be clear once Sharad Pawar starts “calling up” legislators.
Sharad Pawar said it was not the party’s decision to go with the BJP-Shiv Sena(Shinde faction), adding such things like a party rebellion are not new for him. He said the party leadership will take action against those who joined the state Cabinet.
“I am not bothered that people have left, but I am worried for their future,” he said, adding he would go to people.
“Those (leaders) who violated party line and took the oath (as ministers), a decision has to be taken on them,” he told reporters in Pune.
The NCP veteran also said he was not upset with anyone for party MLAs joining the Maharashtra government, but with Praful Patel, who has been his close aide for decades, for “abandoning” the guidelines of the party president and taking a wrong path. Patel was was present at the Raj Bhavan and seated next to Ajit Pawar at the latter’s news conference.
The NCP leaders who took oath were Chhagan Bhujbal, Dilip Walse Patil, Hasan Mushrif, Dhananjay Munde, Aditi Tatkare, Dharmarao Atram, Anil Patil and Sanjay Bansode took oath as ministers. With this, the strength of the ministry rose to 29. Maharashtra can have a maximum of 43 ministers.
Opposition parties lashed out at the BJP, claiming the ruling party’s “washing machine” has resumed its operations and it can no longer talk about fighting corruption as it has joined hands with tainted leaders.
BJP spokesperson R P Singh, however, said, “India is developing rapidly and this is happening only because of PM Modi. Ajit Pawar knows this very well and that’s why he decided to join hands with us.” Union Minister Ramdas Athawale said Ajit Pawar was unhappy in the Opposition for a long time.
“Ajit Pawar’s decision to join the NDA is a ‘dashing decision’ and this is a huge setback for Sharad Pawar,” he said.
Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar, who was present at the Raj Bhavan, said Ajit Pawar has resigned as the leader of the opposition (LoP) in the Lower House and he has accepted it.
Maharashtra BJP president Chandrashekhar Bawankule claimed 40 MLAs of the NCP have supported the state government. Elections to the 288-member state Assembly are due next year.