Updated: July 6, 2022 3:51:00 am
The selection of senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader Ajit Pawar, 62, as the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) in the Maharashtra Assembly has again signalled that he remains the best bet for the party when it comes to facing electoral challenges.
In the previous Shiv Sena-led Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government, Ajit Pawar had been the deputy chief minister, which had marked his return to the centre-stage of state politics despite having raised a banner of revolt briefly against his uncle and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar by getting sworn in as deputy CM along with Devendra Fadnavis as the CM in a dramatic, albeit short-lived, development just before the MVA’s formation in November 2019.
During the MVA government’s 31-month tenure, Ajit was said to be the de facto CM who would regularly work from the state government’s Mantralay headquarters amid the Covid-19 pandemic. CM Uddhav Thackeray, on the other hand, preferred working mostly from his official residence “Varsha”.
Following the establishment of a new government involving the Eknath Shinde-led rebel Sena faction and the BJP, the NCP (53 MLAs) got an upper hand over the Uddhav-led Sena (15) and the Congress (44) in staking claim over the LoP’s post.
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The NCP leadership took the decision to appoint Ajit as the LoP after carefully weighing its pros and cons. With Pawar Senior continuing to call the shots in the party organisation, many were skeptical on whether Ajit would get this key position or not.
Pawar Senior has always exercised caution not to hand over any post to family members on a platter. Whether it is Ajit or daughter Supriya Sule, an MP, they have been subjected to rigorous political grind to prove their mettle before given positions.
A seven-time MLA, Ajit Pawar has been winning from the Baramati Assembly constituency since 1991. Apart from a brief stint as a Lok Sabha MP in early nineties, his politics has always remained confined to Maharashtra.
NCP insiders said that “Ajit Pawar will have to navigate through plenty of challenges in his role as the LoP”. They conceded that his new role will demand a tightrope walk as any aggressive politics against the new government would entail a “heavy price” with the “sword of central agencies like the ED hanging over him and some other NCP leaders”.
The state NCP president, Jayant Patil, says, “Whether we are in government or Opposition we have always believed in constructive politics. Our objective is pushing developmental agenda.”
Pointing out that Ajit is a seasoned grass-roots politician and an “able administrator with in-depth knowledge of the state affairs”, the NCP camp believes that he will “excel” as the Opposition leader and that “he (Ajit) will be a perfect match to Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis when it comes to debates on the floor of the House.”
However, Ajit’s blunt manner of speaking and abrasive style of functioning has often not gone down well with the party organisation as well within the Pawar family. Senior party leaders loyal to Pawar Senior are said to be not comfortable with Ajit known for his “impulsive and short temper”.
After Ajit had joined hands with Fadnavis for their dramatic early-moring swearing-in, Sharad Pawar had to ruthlessly crack the whip to ensure that he broke away from the BJP and returned to the NCP fold. Those developments had dealt a blow to not only the NCP but also the Pawar family. Supriya had then expressed “deep regret”, terming it a “split” within the NCP and the Pawar family.
Although the Fadnavis-Ajit coalition lasted only 80 hours, the damage was done and left to Pawar Senior to control it. Ajit, however, survived the episode. He returned and apologised, apparently learning a lesson that “Sharad Pawar cannot be challenged in the NCP”.
A senior party leader close to the Pawar family said, “Pawarsaheb evaluates each and every individual’s strengths and weaknesses. And accordingly gives him/ her a role in organisation. It includes Ajit and Supriya or even Rohit Pawar.”
There seems to be a clear division of party work in the family. While Supriya has confined herself to national politics, Ajit has been virtually given a free hand in the Maharashtra affairs.
Some NCP leaders claim that Pawar Senior makes no distinction between a family member and any other party member when it comes to making his political assessment. “A mistake is a mistake no matter who has committed it. Or else, how does one explain the NCP chief’s public rebuke to grand nephew Parth Pawar,” they say.
Upset over Parth’s views on various issues such as the Ram temple and the Sushant Singh Rajput suicide case, which was seen at odds with the NCP’s official line, Pawar Senior had publicly rebuked him, calling him “immature”.
Ajit has been the deputy CM thrice so far in different governments and has handled a wide range of portfolios including finance, agriculture, rural development and water resources. He also has a vast legislative experience.
Gearing up for the 2024 Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, the NCP hopes that Ajit would play his LoP role effectively to help the party realise its formidable ambition of emerging as the single largest party in the 288-member Maharashtra Assembly.
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