In a dramatic turn of events, the BJP turned the tables on former ally Shiv Sena to bring back Devendra Fadnavis as Maharashtra Chief Minister on Saturday, taking the help of a faction of NCP MLAs led by Ajit Pawar. In an early morning ceremony, Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari swore in Fadnavis as CM and Ajit as Deputy CM.
NCP chief Sharad Pawar held a joint press conference with Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray to denounce Ajit, and to claim that of the 10-11 NCP MLAs who had accompanied him to the swearing-in, three had “returned”. Ajit was later removed as NCP legislature party chief at a meeting of the NCP, where party leaders claimed 42 of its 54 MLAs were present.
NCP state president Jayant Patil said seven of the 12 missing MLAs had called to say they were with the party, while five were not reachable. All constitutional rights of a legislature party chief have been bestowed on Patil. The legislature party leader has the power to issue whip to MLAs.
The BJP has 105 MLAs, and claims the support of 14 Independents. BJP sources said 28 to 30 NCP MLAs were with Ajit, which would take their tally to 147-149 MLAs in the 288-member House. The BJP is also said to be wooing the six Independents with the Sena.
The hunt for missing NCP MLAs saw it working in tandem with the Sena to ensure that the legislators seen as supporting Ajit did not slip out of Mumbai. After reports emerged that they might be flown out, scouts from the NCP and Sena were deployed at Mumbai airport and its vicinity. The NCP took the help of the Sena as the latter has a strong presence in unions related to the aviation sector.
Saturday’s developments came hours after Sharad Pawar had named Thackeray as the chief ministerial designate of an NCP, Sena, Congress alliance. The three parties were planning to stake claim to form the government on Saturday.
The formal decision to revoke President’s rule was taken shortly before 5.30 am by the President. Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta was only told in the morning.
With fevered speculation swirling in Mumbai, the top-most question on everyone’s mind was if Ajit had the blessing of Pawar and other NCP leaders.
At his press conference with Thackeray, Pawar said this was far from the case and committed to defeat the Fadnavis government in a floor test. He said he had been unaware of his nephew’s plans. “I got to know at 6:45 am from a collegue that Ajit Pawar and some MLAs had gone to Raj Bhavan… The decision taken by Ajit Pawar is against the ethos of the NCP and disciplinary action will be initiated against him,” Pawar said, while adding that the NCP would meet and decide what form this action would take.
Thackeray termed the developments “shameless”. “This is nothing but disrespect towards the Constitution and the mandate given by Maharashtra. We will stand together and we will form the government in Maharashtra,” Thackeray said.
According to NCP souces, Manikrao Kokate (Sinnar MLA), Narhari Zirwal (Dindori), Sunil Shelke (Maval), Sandeep Kshirsagar (Beed), Dilip Bankar (Niphad), Rajendra Shingane (Buldhana), Sangram Jagtap (Ahmednagar), Babasaheb Patil (Ahmedpur), Sunil Tingare (Vadgaon), Daulat Daroda (Shahapur), Anil Patil (Amalner), Nitin Pawar (Kalwan), and Sanjay Bansode (Udgir), were among those who accompanied Ajit to the Governor. Party leaders claimed they came rushing back once they knew Pawar was not with Ajit.
Shingane, who was present at the Pawar-Thackeray press conference, claimed that the MLAs who went to Raj Bhavan were kept in the dark by Ajit. “I received a call from Ajit Pawar in the night asking me to reach Leader of Opposition (Legislative Council) Dhananjay Munde’s official residence at 6 am. On reaching there, I found that 8-10 MLAs had gathered. None of us were told why we were being taken to Raj Bhavan, and only understood what was happening when the swearing-in took place. As soon as I left Raj Bhavan, I went to Sharad Pawar’s residence and told him I would stay with the NCP,” he said.
Incidentally, the Congress, which was expected to be present at the conference, stayed away. Later, senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel held an independent press conference, where he termed the developments a “black day” in Maharashtra’s history.
Justifying the government formation, Fadnavis, who has in the past sought action against Ajit over graft allegations, said, “The public mandate was clear cut, but the Sena did not respect it and initiated talks with other parties, owing to which no government could not be formed. An attempt was being made to foist a desperate, unnatural alliance. To thwart this and provide a stable government, we came together.”
Ajit said he broke away due to the impasse in negotiations between the NCP, Congress and Sena. “The talks were just not ending. The demands being raised were unreasonable. When such problems existed, how could we provide a stable government?” he said.
Fadnavis was accompanied at the swearing-in by his mother Sarita, wife Amruta and daughter Divija, while Ajit had with him wife Sunetra and son Parth. State BJP president Chandrakant Patil and former minister Girish Mahajan were among the few present at the ceremony.
Ahmed Patel refused to take a question on whether the Congress thought Pawar Senior had been in the loop, while asserting that the three parties were still together and would defeat the Fadnavis government in a floor test.
(with inputs from Shubhangi Khapre)