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Monday, March 04, 2013

The resignation of NCP’s Ajit Pawar as Maharashtra deputy CM has helped him and his powerful uncle derive more political mileage than their opponents could have bargained for, reports Chandran Iyer

The bombshell that Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar dropped recently by stepping down as Maharashtra deputy chief minister was, on hindsight, a smart move. Not only did the surprise political salvo fox everyone, it also helped him derive more mileage than anyone had bargained for.

The resignation drama did set tongues wagging about the stability of the Congress-NCP alliance in the state as well as about a possible rift between Ajit and his uncle, NCP strongman and Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar. But eventually the move only appeared to strengthen the hands of the two Pawars.

The Pawars’ political opponents, of course, were quick to impute ulterior motives to the move. Devendra Fadnavis, BJP MLA, says that “the resignation drama enacted by Ajit Pawar was only a ploy to refurbish his tainted image and bounce back after getting a clean chit in the form of a White Paper”.

He adds: “Ajit Pawar knows very well that a White Paper hardly ever indicts any minister. It makes convenient scapegoats of some junior officials.” Fadnavis is right and the eventuality that he alludes to could not have been very far from the former Maharashtra deputy CM’s mind.

While, with a single stroke of a resignation, Ajit Pawar made it amply clear to Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan that he commands considerable support within his party and still has his sights firmly on the Mantralaya hot seat, the senior Pawar found a handy bargaining chip for use at the Centre, where he is an ally of the ruling UPA with only nine Members of Parliament.

The initial analysis by political observers was that Pawar’s nephew was planning to do to the Union minister what Raj Thackeray had done to his uncle, Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray, by breaking away from him and floating his own political outfit, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Raj had rebelled against his uncle because the latter had given more powers to his son, Uddhav.

In Ajit’s case, it was said that he had taken a belligerent stand because he felt that the senior Pawar was promoting his daughter, Supriya Sule, at his nephew’s expense. Moreover, it was suggested that Ajit was also peeved because Sharad Pawar was being soft on the Maharashtra CM, who was systematically undermining NCP’s hold on the cooperative banking system in the state.

The Shiv Sena had been split wide open. But nothing of that sort happened in NCP. Both Ajit Pawar and his uncle vehemently denied the rumours of a rift. However, the stability of the Maharashtra coalition government did come under a cloud for a while. Congress and NCP have been allies in Maharashtra for 13 years.

Ajit Pawar’s resignation from all ministerial posts, including the finance ministry, followed persistent reports of his alleged involvement in a Rs 20,000-crore scam that occurred when he held the irrigation portfolio between 1999 and 2009. The reports brought into focus the role of powerful, politically connected contractors who used their links to corner irrigation projects and make huge amounts of money without carrying out the requisite construction work. As a result, the quantum of irrigated land in Maharashtra increased by only 0.1 per cent in the last ten years.

The Ajit Pawar resignation rattled the foundation of the NCP and Congress alliance in Maharashtra which was already creaking because of the tussle between Ajit Pawar and the Chavan, who do not see eye to eye on several issues. Ajit was seeking to deliver a double blow, one aimed at Chavan, who has been choking his cooperative banks and the other at his own uncle. He wanted to convey to the latter that he was now big enough to grow his own wings and fly the coop if he was not given his due in the party.

It is an open secret in the corridors of power in Maharashtra that Ajit has a single-point agenda – to become the chief minister of Maharashtra. Sharad Pawar had become the youngest chief minister of the state at the age of 38. The nephew is 53 and still biding his time. His impatience is understandable. He thought his time had come to become the deputy chief minister after the 2009 Assembly elections but his ambitions were thwarted. But he managed to have his way in December 2010 when he replaced the OBC leader Chhagan Bhujbal in that post.

Uncle and nephew are poles apart. Sharad Pawar is totally unpredictable. Ajit is blunt and arrogant. A politician who has seen both of them from close quarters says: “Saheb (as Sharad Pawar is called) can be smooth, polished and very amiable in conversation but one can never fathom what he is thinking at any given point of time. His action could be totally at variance with what he utters. Dada (Ajit Pawar), on the other hand, can be blunt to the point of being rude.”

Describing Ajit’s style of functioning, he adds: “If something cannot be done, he tells you so up-front. But if he gives his word, then chances are that he will fulfil it at any cost.”

Vandana Chavan, NCP’s Pune city president and Rajya Sabha member, describes Ajit Pawar as a perfectionist and a go-getter who does not mince words. “He does not let things linger. If something has to be done, he will ensure that it is done forthwith. He does not tolerate excuses. Punctual to a fault, he starts his day at 7 AM and expects others to follow. He can be very blunt with those who do not meet his standards. He is an amazing administrator.”

She denies that there is any rift between Sharad Pawar and his nephew. “Reports about Ajit Pawar’s misgivings about his cousin Supriya Sule are all fabricated,”

In fact, as an obvious part of a damage control exercise, Supriya herself said in Pune that all was well in the family and she had no differences with her cousin. “Blood is thicker than water and I want to see NCP riding to power in Maharashtra with my cousin Ajit as its chief minister,” she declared, putting all speculation at rest.

Ajit Pawar made his foray into politics through a path that has been the mainstay of his clan for long - the sugar cooperatives. He was elected to a sugar cooperative body in 1982. 1991 was quite eventful for the younger Pawar. He was later elected as chairman of the Pune District Co-operative Bank (PDC). He held that post for 16 years. His first shot at national politics also came in the same year1991 when he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Baramati but he chose to vacate the seat within six months for uncle Sharad Pawar, who would go on to become the defence minister in the PV Narasimha Rao government.

Later that year, Ajit returned to the state and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly in the same year joined Sudhakarrao Naik's government. Later, he would become the youngest Cabinet minister at 40, when he became the irrigation minister in Vilasrao Deshmukh’s government. It was his 10 year stint at this post that is now the crux of the scam.

NCP spokesperson Ankush Kakade says the working styles are different for obvious reasons. “Sharad Pawar has a great deal of patience. He worked with veteran politicians like YB Chavan, Vasantdada Patil and several others. He possesses amazing organisational skills, which come to the forth in crisis situations, be it the Latur earthquake or the Mumbai blasts.”

He adds: “Ajit Pawar, too, is a great administrator and a taskmaster. But while Sharad Pawar waits for the right time to make a move, Ajit Pawar believes in immediate action. The media often portrays him as aloof and arrogant because he does not believe in publicising his own work”.

In Fadnavis’ opinion, Ajit had not taken his uncle’s permission before announcing his resignation. The senior leader, he claims, was informed only after the deed had been done. “But this proved to be a win-win situation for both. For Ajit it proved to be a muscle-flexing exercise in the state, while it increased the bargaining power of Sharad Pawar at the Centre.”

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