Indian politics has always resembled a soap opera—none more so than the netagiri in Maharashtra. The latest cliffhanger: NCP leader Ajit Pawar breaking ranks to join the Eknath Shinde/BJP government. Also included: a silly war of words involving cricket analogies.
Maha Melodrama: A quick catch-up
Since the 2019 state elections, the state has witnessed more political twists and turns than ‘House of Cards’. Here’s a recap—focusing primarily on the man of the hour: Ajit Pawar.
First, meet Ajit Pawar: He is NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s nephew but sadly not his political heir. A fact that has long made him very unhappy—and left him plotting a way out of his uncle’s tall shadow. His discontent can be traced back to 2009—when Sharad launched the political career of his daughter Supriya Sule. He later became convinced that Sharad preferred another grand-nephew Rohit over his own son Parth—and the ill-will soon extended to a new generation. OTOH, Ajit’s detractors claim that he will back anybody to be CM.
Where it all began: The 2019 split verdict. The state elections did not give any one party a majority vote. BJP had the biggest tally: 105. Shiv Sena: 56. NCP: 54. Congress: 44. The number required to form the government: 145.
The Shiv Sena defection: During the election, two jodis went into battle against one another: BJP/Shiv Sena and NCP/Congress. However, soon after the results were announced, the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena dumped the BJP to join an unprecedented threesome with NCP/Congress—and looked set to claim the gaddi.
The Ajit Pawar defection: The drama escalated when Ajit Pawar suddenly switched ranks. He joined hands with BJP state chief Devendra Fadnavis—claiming he had a letter of support signed by 54 MLAs—enough for a majority. And he was speedily sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister—with Fadnavis by his side. All this over the space of a weekend in November 2019.
The Ajit Pawar flip flop: Sadly, his letter of support turned out to be a bit of a fraud. While it was signed by all 54 NCP MLAs, it made no mention of supporting the BJP or any other party. The Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress alliance won the day, and Uddhav Thackeray was sworn in as Chief Minister. The prodigal nephew returned to the family business fold—facing a bleak political future. The real winner in all of this: NCP supremo Sharad Pawar who brought the unholy trinity together—and out-manoeuvred his uppity relative.
The Eknath Shinde dhamaka: Ajit remained sheepish and sidelined until Shiv Sena leader Eknnath Shinde achieved the seemingly impossible in July 2022. He defied the Thackerays to join hands with the BJP–and took 40 MLAs with him. Shinde not just usurped the CM gaddi from Uddhav—but also his party name and symbol. All of which refuelled young Ajit’s ambitions.
The latest episode: Ajit strikes back!
The great resignation: Out of power, Uncle Sharad no longer looked omnipotent—his wily political machinations had all come to naught. Come May, there were increasing rumours of Ajit once again making a break for the BJP ranks. Pawar Sr tried again to checkmate his nephew—by grandly announcing his resignation as party chief. When Ajit tried to take over, he was met with chaos, panic and tears in the party leadership. He did his best to quell the outrage but to little effect. Lo and behold, Sharad Pawar took back his resignation within days—having triumphantly proven that he (not Ajit) is the true leader of NCP.
Not helping matters: Shinde—who threatened to dump the BJP if they cosied up to Ajit Pawar.
The trigger: But Sharad’s victory soon proved to be temporary—as did Shinde’s fervent resistance to Ajit’s charms. The proverbial last straw: Sharad’s decision to make his daughter Supriya Sule and MP Praful Patel national working presidents of the party—ignoring Ajit’s demand for an organisational role.
Cue the cricket analogies: The war of words between Sharad Pawar and Fadnavis escalated (or nosedived) to new levels of absurdity. The NCP chief claimed to have tricked Fadnavis with a political “googly” back in 2019—to which he replied: “Pawar bowled the googly but it knocked out his nephew.” All of which culminated with this ominous BJP warning: “Pawar has bowled his last googly. All we can say is they should wait. The match is not over. Hereafter, they will face Fadnavis’s googlies and bouncers.” 🤦🏾♀️.
The Ajit-sized bouncer! On Sunday, Ajit was once more sworn in as Deputy Chief Minister—along with eight other NCP MLAs who took oath as ministers. He will share the second-in-command post with Fadnavis—while Shinde remains CM. But here’s the interesting bit:
Maintaining that there was no split in NCP, he said they would contest all the future elections on the NCP’s name and symbol. All the elected representatives (of the party) have supported the decision to join the government, Pawar added.
The magic number: His supporters claim Ajit has the support of at least 36 MLAs—the critical threshold if he is to avoid being punished under the anti-defection laws. It would also allow him to make a Shinde-like move—and claim to be the “true” NCP. But Sharad’s camp says otherwise—and appears to be still negotiating with the defectors.
Sharad Pawar’s response: Not willing to step away from bad sports metaphors, Sharad declared: “This is not googly, it is a robbery.” The party is moving to disqualify the nine MLAs—including Ajit—who were sworn in on Sunday.
But Pawar Sr doesn’t seem inclined to move the courts to challenge Ajit’s claim to the NCP: "We will go to people and seek their support. I am confident they will support us.” The Sharad camp is gambling on the loyalty of the rank-and-file workers and voters to win the day: “People will not accept their decision to switch loyalty to the other side, so they have to return, and they will return.”
Very dramatic but it doesn’t change anything…
Yes. Shinde will remain CM—and the BJP will continue to rule the roost—now with the added support of the NCP. However, if Ajit can pull off a copycat coup a la Eknath Shinde, it will have serious consequences for the man who inspired him.
Shinde’s got problems: If Ajit can bring in 36 MLAs as promised, the BJP no longer needs Shinde’s Sena to remain in power. Shinde’s brahmastra—the power to bring down the government—will go up in smoke:
Now, as a political observer said, the BJP has no “compulsion” to remain with the Shinde side and has an alternative in the NCP legislators to retain power. “This will come as a setback for Shinde and his MLAs. The party may also no longer find the free space in the government and in the coalition it earlier enjoyed,” this observer noted.
Also this: Shinde used the NCP as the main justification to topple Uddhav Thackeray—claiming that Ajit was treating Sena MLAs poorly. He also insisted that the secular NCP was ideologically incompatible with Shiv Sena—and its commitment to Hindutva. Joining hands with Ajit now undermines his personal credibility within the Sena rank-and-file.
Bad news for Sharad: Until now, the BJP/Sena combine had numbers in the legislature—but their prospects in an actual election remained uncertain. No one knew how the Sena voters would respond to the coup. But the NCP defectors include some of the biggest names in the party—with their own voter base. Also: Sharad’s own credibility within the opposition coalition has taken a hit. He was poised to be the master architect of a unity plan—which is unlikely if he’s lost control of his own party.
Also this: Fadnavis is already doing his best to imply that Ajit’s defection could have Sharad’s secret support—and “could be a move by Pawar senior to sail in both boats.”
The bottomline: The BJP’s ‘divide and conquer’ strategy will always succeed as long as leaders run their party like a family business—sowing the seeds of their own destruction.
The Telegraph has extended quotes from Ajit and Sharad on his rebellion. This recent Hindustan Times piece offers the history of the Pawar vs Pawar feud—and why Sharad has been the victor in the past. The Hindu is best on the consequences for Sharad. Indian Express explains why this is a disaster for Eknath Shinde. For more background, read our Big Story on the Shinde coup.