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india today insightWill he, won’t he? The speculation was swirling around for months. But when Ajit Pawar finally walked out with his loyalists from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), led by his uncle Sharad Pawar, into the waiting arms of the BJP in Maharashtra on July 2, the timing caught many off guard.

Ajit and eight NCP MLAs took the oath of office and secrecy at Raj Bhavan on Sunday afternoon. Like chief minister Eknath Shinde had staked claim to being the ‘real’ Shiv Sena after his rebellion against party boss Uddhav Thackeray last year, Ajit too is claiming that he represents the official NCP. It is claimed that Ajit has the support of 35 NCP MLAs and two of the five Lok Sabha MPs, though the picture will be clear in the days to come.

While the defection has bolstered the ranks of the ruling Eknath Shinde-BJP coalition in Maharashtra, it has deep ramifications on the prime characters in this cast.

What happens to Eknath Shinde?

The ruling coalition in Maharashtra may now be dealing with a problem of plenty as it includes three parties—the BJP, Shinde’s Shiv Sena, and Ajit and his men from the NCP.

Ajit’s defection comes as a setback to Shinde as the BJP now has a more dependable ally in the state. This has significantly reduced the elbow space available to Shinde. The attempts by the Shinde camp to flex their muscles, such as by issuing advertisements claiming that Shinde was more popular than deputy chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, will also be constrained. Assembly speaker Rahul Narwekar, who belongs to the BJP, is also hearing the disqualification petitions filed against Shinde and his MLAs and against legislators loyal to Uddhav.

Senior BJP leaders admit that the party’s central leadership was in doubt about Shinde’s ability to deliver the goods when it came to the 2024 Lok Sabha and assembly polls. With 48 Lok Sabha seats, Maharashtra is crucial if the BJP wants to return to power for a third unprecedented term at the Centre. Despite walking away with 40 of the 56 Shiv Sena MLAs and the name and symbol of the official Shiv Sena, Shinde has no party organisation to boast of. The rank and file is seen as loyal to Uddhav, with the party’s core Maharashtrian vote base and even sections of the minorities coalescing around Thackeray. The Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray), and by extension the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA), are also seen as having gained public sympathy, much to Shinde’s chagrin.

Incidentally, one excuse given by Shinde and his men for breaking ranks with the MVA was Ajit’s overbearing style of functioning. They claimed that Ajit, who was deputy chief minister and finance minister in the MVA government, was partial towards the NCP when it came to distribution of funds. It may be déj vu for Shinde with indications that his new deputy Ajit will get the finance portfolio again.

While Shinde’s MLAs were eagerly awaiting an expansion of the cabinet for months, their counterparts from the Ajit Pawar camp have stolen a march over them. Shinde may now get a smaller number of the 14 vacant berths in the council of ministers, while he was said to be angling for power-sharing on equal terms. Shinde will have a hard time keeping his flock under control.

Ajit Pawar’s calculations

A group led by Ajit had reportedly been straining to realign the NCP with the BJP. However, his uncle and NCP boss Sharad Pawar announced his surprise intent to quit as the party’s national president. As his party rallied around him, Ajit seemed to be increasingly isolated, and Pawar eventually withdrew his decision, indicating that he had won the second this round of the fratricidal war.

Later, Pawar appointed daughter Supriya Sule and close aide and former Union minister Praful Patel as working presidents of the NCP in a bid to strike a balance between both camps in the party. Ajit threw his hat in the ring for an organisational post and was said to be eyeing the position of NCP Maharashtra unit president, which is held by former minister Jayant Patil, who is in the Pawar camp. However, Pawar was reluctant to give his nephew a greater say in the party’s organisational affairs, which is said to have proved the last straw.

Ajit and his band of defectors were also said to be under pressure from central investigating agencies. NCP leaders like Praful Patel and Hasan Mushrif were under the scanner for alleged money laundering. Ajit is said to have met a senior BJP leader during his visit to Delhi to attend the marriage of an NCP MLA’s daughter. A senior Congress leader claimed that Ajit may have been served with an ultimatum during this meeting.

This defection will also water down brand Ajit, who has chief ministerial ambitions. Though he projects himself as an alpha male who is upfront to the point of being abrasive, the perception that he buckled due to pressure from central agencies, such as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), may take some sheen off this image.

Incidentally, late last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had attacked the NCP for graft and pointed to allegations of corruption in irrigation projects when the party held the water resources portfolio and the alleged irregularities in the NCP-held Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank (MSCB). Pawar said this had increased the anxieties of party leaders who were already under the ED’s scanner. Fingers had been pointed at Ajit, who was water resources minister for a significant time in the Congress- NCP regime in Maharashtra, and later at his aide Sunil Tatkare, who succeeded him, in the alleged irrigation scam. Tatkare, the NCP MP from Raigad, has joined Ajit’s rebellion.

The predicament of Devendra Fadnavis

Maharashtra will have two deputy chief ministers for the first time in its history. Already smarting at being relegated to Shinde’s number two, Fadnavis will now have to share space with Ajit. There is speculation on whether Fadnavis may be shifted to Delhi in the proposed expansion of the Union council of ministers, though sceptics say this may be improbable as it leaves the field open for Shinde and Ajit. Despite being deputy chief minister, Fadnavis is seen as the de facto chief minister due to his command over the bureaucracy, police and intelligence apparatus.

Fadnavis and the BJP leadership will also have to contend with unease in the BJP, especially among its veterans, over newcomers and the party’s allies being given prominence in the scheme of things. The BJP, which has 105 MLAs in the state, not counting Independents and smaller parties who support it, has just 10 ministerial berths, including that of Fadnavis. Shinde, who has 40 MLAs, too has 10 berths, while Ajit, who is said to have around 35 of the NCP’s 53 MLAs, has been given nine positions in the council of ministers. This has understandably led to unease in the BJP, though this has been kept under the lid so far.

Calculations for Lok Sabha poll battle

Senior BJP leaders admit that contrary to public perception, the defections from the NCP have been engineered not to bolster support for the coalition in Maharashtra but with an eye on the Lok Sabha election.

Though BJP leaders put on a brave face in public, they admit in private that the Shinde-led regime is not as popular as claimed. The BJP was worried that its Lok Sabha seats tally in Maharashtra in 2024 may fall below 41, which the party and the undivided Shiv Sena had notched up in 2019. This may be owing to ‘sympathy’ for the MVA, especially Uddhav whose regime Shinde had dislodged with his coup. Many of the NCP’s defecting legislators and leaders are local satraps and have a strong presence in their constituencies, which may bolster the BJP’s chances in the Lok Sabha polls.

The BJP may also use one thorn to extricate another—for instance, Parth Pawar, the elder son of Ajit Pawar, who lost the 2019 Lok Sabha election from Maval, may be fielded against his aunt and Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule from the family pocket borough of Baramati. Winning the Baramati Lok Sabha seat tops the BJP’s list of priorities for the sheer shock and awe this may lead to.

What happens to MVA?

The development comes as a short-term setback to the MVA, in which the NCP is the largest party, for the vertical nature of the split. This may also erode voters’ confidence in the MVA to keep its flock together. Already, there are rumours that some more defections from the Congress and Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) are likely, though the ability of the BJP-Shinde-Ajit regime to reward them for their transition is constrained due to lack of cabinet berths.

But leaders of the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) claim that any sympathy for the MVA may have been bolstered while a former Congress minister noted that the NCP’s meltdown had created an opportunity for the Congress and the Shiv Sena (Uddhav Balasaheb Thackeray) to tap into this Opposition space.

The autumn of the patriarch and fight for ‘real’ NCP

NCP patriarch Sharad Pawar is one of the most polarising leaders in Maharashtra, whose name and career provokes extreme reactions. But even his critics admit that Pawar, a cancer survivor, is a “fighter”. In the 2019 assembly election, the Congress and NCP were fighting with their back to the wall after massive defections from their ranks. All had seemed lost until Pawar swung into action, hitting the campaign trail and addressing public meetings, including one at Satara, in western Maharashtra, in pouring rain. This image of Pawar leading a lone fightback spurred the Opposition campaign, and the NCP and Congress notched a tally of 54 and 44 seats, respectively. It later came to power in an expedient alliance with the Shiv Sena.

BJP leaders, however, claim that 82-year-old Pawar’s ability to fight back may be constrained by age. However, Pawar has indicated that he may hit the ground running and will launch his mass contact programme from Satara on July 3.

Pawar is seen as one of the fulcrums of the efforts to ensure national Opposition unity. However, his admission that he was on board during the NCP’s efforts to strike an understanding with the BJP after the 2019 election, which culminated in Ajit entering into a short-lived understanding with the BJP, runs counter to his claims and has also dented his credibility.

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