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Why the Maharashtra crisis is a win-win for Ajit Pawar

September 28, 2012 17:50 IST

By resigning, the former deputy CM has struck pre-emptively against Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and used the opportunity to demonstrate that it is he who calls the shots in the state unit of the Nationalist Congress Party, says Neerja Chowdhury.

The ongoing Maharashtra crisis, triggered by the resignation of deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, has placed Sharad Pawar's nephew in a win-win situation. He struck pre-emptively against Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and used the opportunity to demonstrate that it is he who calls the shots in the state unit of the Nationalist Congress Party.

When Sharad Pawar was saying that Ajit Pawar's resignation would be accepted, the NCP MLAs were demanding that he take back his resignation. When the NCP's national leadership was maintaining that there was no threat to the government and no ministers would resign, all the NCP ministers sent their resignations to the NCP state chief. When Praful Patel -- he has been the main go between the NCP and the Congress and is tipped to get a better portfolio in the impending Cabinet reshuffle in Delhi -- said the meeting of the NCP legislature party was not going to take place last Wednesday, it did take place and the MLAs passed a resolution asking Ajit Pawar to take back his resignation.

Ajit Pawar had 'informed' his uncle about his intention to resign. But the senior Pawar, it seems, had no idea that the NCP ministers would also resign. In fact, Ajit Pawar was slated to come and meet his uncle in Delhi last Monday along with Chavan but he did not show up. Instead he tendered his resignation the next day. The national leadership of the NCP has found itself moving one step behind the state leadership.

But the battle for supremacy in the Maharashtra NCP is a side story. The main narrative running through the recent developments in Mumbai is the attack mounted by Ajit Pawar against Chavan, who had promised a white paper into the irregularities in the irrigation department which was headed by Ajit Pawar from 1999 to 2009, with Rs 70, 000 crore spent and less than one percent of the land was irrigated in the state.

Through his resignation, but without saying it in so many words, Ajit 'Dada' Pawar, as he is known in Maharashtra, has sent a political message to the Congress leadership: Either change the chief minister or face the music.

Two factors seem to have decided the timing of Ajit Pawar's action. It was not as if there was pressure on him to step down. There was no CAG report, no censure by the judiciary, the white paper is expected to come out in December. There were a couple of exposes about the "irrigation scam" in the Times of India and Ajit Pawar saw had the hand of the CM's office. With a running battle between the Maharashtra CM and his deputy CM in recent months -- the CM has refused to sign files without looking at them very carefully -- the NCP had raised the ante against Chavan and there was a buzz last month that the Congress leadership may move Chavan back to Delhi before October 31 so as to placate its regional ally in Maharashtra.

But last week, buoyed by a sudden purposefulness and having overcome the challenge that Mamata Banerjee's exit, the Congress high command decided that there would be no change of guard in Maharashtra. And what may have riled Ajit dada even more was the sense that his uncle Sharad Pawar had become "reconciled" to the continuation of Chavan. In fact, Chavan has left the decision of whether or not to accept Ajit dada's resignation to Sharad Pawar.

Sharad Pawar, who flew into Mumbai on Friday to meet with the NCP MLAs and find a way out of the crisis, appears to be working on the formula that Ajit Pawar's resignation be accepted, that the 19 ministers go back to the government, that the post of the deputy chief minister be kept vacant for Ajit dada till the white paper has absolved him, and he can then return to the government.

Pawar had to contend with four scenarios. One, Ajit Pawar takes back his resignation and it is business as usual in the government. This is highly unlikely for someone like Ajit dada, who has a grip over the organisation, is a 24x7 politician, a man who prides himself for his tough image and it stands to reason that had he wanted to take back his resignation, he would not have tendered it in the first place. Being the first Maratha leader to have resigned, his move was clearly a political one -- and a preemptive strike.

Two, that Ajit Pawar agrees to the Sharad Pawar formula. That he goes out of the ministry, remains the leader of the NCP legislature party, and concentrates on building up the party in the next year and half before the next elections and the ministers all return to the government. Even if Sharad Pawar gets his way, it is not likely to be business as usual any more. The ministers owing their loyalty to Ajit Pawar, and the NCP MLAs -- the recent crisis has shown that 50 of them and most of the independents owe their loyalty to him -- can be expected to make the going tough for the chief minister in the coming weeks, having a bearing on the stability and functioning of the Maharasthra government.

Three, that Prithviraj Chavan goes back to Delhi and a new CM takes over. The Congress has ruled this out quite categorically and it will stand to lose whatever ground it had gained in the last week, going ahead with economic reforms and taking on Mamata Banerjee. Shunting Chavan out will reinforce the impression of the Congress caving into pressure to oust its CM who was trying to cleanse the system.

Four, that Chavan continues and the NCP gives the government its support from the 'outside'. This is something that Ajit Pawar is pushing for. But such a step will have implications for the party also at the Centre. If the Maharashtra NCP supports a Congress government from the outside, will the national NCP be compelled to do likewise in Delhi? Outside support means distancing itself from the Congress, making the future of the government in Mumbai that much more uncertain, and rendering the government in Delhi more fragile. It may also have a bearing on whether the two parties can contest together in the 2014 elections, both for the Lok Sabha and the state assembly.

One thing however is clear -- that Sharad Pawar is not going to be a Bal Thackeray. He will not allow his party to go to the brink and break, even if he has to meet his nephew more than halfway.

Neerja Chowdhury