Sharad Pawar may have lost the battle against his nephew and a conniving BJP, but can he win the war to reclaim his party and reputation?
The Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar claims he is neither 'tired nor retired' at 82. Undeterred by the recent political crisis in his party, the Grand old man has begun to rebuild his shrinking party after the BJP engineered the division in the NCP. Pawar founded the party in 1999, rebelling against Congress. He is currently facing the very tough challenge of keeping his flock together. Senior Pawar is much older and has health problems.
To add to his woes, almost all his loyalists, including his nephew Ajit Pawar, Praful Patel and Chhagan Bhujwal, whom he had groomed for years, have ditched him to join the BJP coalition. The present Sena-BJP government had the numbers and didn't need an NCP faction for survival. The question is why the party lured the NCP rebels when the Shinde government is comfortably placed.
The political drama runs at two levels- one at the regional and the other at the national level. The larger story is not the Maharashtra crisis but its impact on the 2024 Lok Sabha elections and the Opposition unity. With just 9 months before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, the electoral future of all parties is at stake. Modi is running for his third term in office.
As for Maharashtra, the elections are due next year. The state accounts for Parliament's second highest Lok Sabha Seats (48), after UP(80).
The BJP wants to improve its position. Pawar is a wily politician who has seen many ups and downs in his more than five decades of political life. He has been chief minister four times, Defence minister and agriculture minister at the Centre. The only thing he could not achieve was his ambition to become Prime Minister. He threw his hat in the ring after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 but lost the opportunity.
The BJP has hit multiple targets in one go successfully. The party took its "revenge" against Sharad Pawar, for in 2019, Sharad had weaned away the Shiv Sena. He persuaded the Congress and put together a Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition government. As part of the revenge, the BJP split the Sena and installed Sena rebel Eknath Shinde as chief minister last year. Now it was the turn of the NCP to face a split.
Ajit, nursing chief ministerial ambition, will have to work alongside BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis, who also holds the same position. Chief minister Eknath Shinde apprehends that Ajit Pawar might be made the chief minister. Shinde and the other Sena rebels are facing a disqualification case, and the verdict is expected in August.
After the NCP split, the political dynamics in Maharashtra shifted in favour of the BJP. Broadly, Sharad Pawar was weakened, and Congress got an advantage. The BJP looks to consolidate power and regain Maratha and OBC support base before the polls. The party enjoyed the Marathas' strong support while keeping its traditional vote base of OBCs from 2014 to 2019.
At the national level, the BJP is yet to recover from the recent defeat in the Karnataka state polls. It depends on the potential for improvement in the other poll-bound states of Chattisgarh, Madya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. They comprise almost 50% of the Lok Sabha seats. Congress is ruling in Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, while BJP holds Madhya Pradesh.
At another level, the NCP split has sent shock waves to the Opposition camp. It hinders the Opposition's efforts to unite anti-BJP forces ahead of Lok Sabha polls. Sharad Pawar is one of the key players in the unity move.
Recently, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar convened a meeting of non-BJP leaders in Patna, where 16 opposition parties participated. They presented a united front and promised to cooperate to achieve their common objective of defeating the BJP. Another meeting is scheduled for next month but has been postponed twice.
Bihar could be the next to face instability. The JD(U) had been a long-time BJP ally in Bihar. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar dumped the BJP last year and formed a government with the RJD, Congress, the Left, and other parties. If enough JD (U) MLAs defect, the BJP could form a government in Bihar, significantly weakening the Opposition unity move. Bihar has 40 seats.
West Bengal could be another target as the BJP has tried hard to penetrate, only in vain. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is one of the active members of the proposed non-BJP coalition. The ongoing political uncertainty in Maharashtra may prolong due to legal battles in courts and the Election Commission. The decision of Speaker Narwekar could also be delayed. There are speculations that this rebellion might have happened with Pawar's blessings and that Sharad may have a secret plan up his sleeve.
Despite his numerous challenges, Pawar has proven to be a resilient and formidable figure. Pawar may have lost the battle against his nephew and a conniving BJP, but will he eventually win the war to reclaim his party and reputation? Is the fight over? Of course not. It is a no holds barred, winner takes it all war that would be fought in the 2024 polls.
(The writer is a well-known columnist. Views expressed are personal)