The Bharatiya Janata Party leadership seems to have cashed in on a simmering feud within Nationalist Congress Party patriarch Sharad Pawar's family by managing an overnight coup just as final contours of a coalition between the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena to form government in Maharashtra were emerging.
The dramatic swearing-in of BJP's Devendra Fadnavis as chief minister and Pawar's nephew Ajit Pawar as his deputy was preceded by days of talks between key party leaders and the junior Pawar, who was facing probe in corruption cases being investigated by central agencies.
The BJP central leadership dispatched party general secretary Bhupender Yadav, a trusted confidant who was also the party's in-charge for the state polls, to Mumbai to execute its plan on ground in coordination with Fadnavis.
The decision to form government at the earliest was taken to trump the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress alliance, which appeared set to stake claim to power, as BJP leaders were of the view that the charm of power would help pull many fence-sitter independent MLAs and those from rival camps to its camp.
As the leader of NCP legislative party, Ajit Pawar had collected letters of support from its MLAs and used them to back the BJP's claim to power.
NCP leader Nawab Malik has said these letters were meant to support the government formation claim of the Sena-NCP-Congress alliance.
Senior BJP leaders declined to comment on queries about whether Sharad Pawar, a crafty politician with a history of backing alliances of different ideologies in the past, was in the know. He has himself affirmed his support to a Sena-led alliance and said his nephew acted on his own.
The BJP leadership was quiet as the three parties were discussing their unlikely alliance all through last week, but it had a Plan B ready.
On Friday night, the Sena, Congress and NCP finalised nitty-gritty of government formation, and were to meet again on Saturday and then approach the governor.
Congress general secretary Mallikarjun Kharge told reporters that Ajit Pawar was present at the meeting of the three parties at Nehru Centre here on Friday evening.
However, the President's rule, imposed on November 12 when no party could form government after the October 21 elections, was revoked at 5.47 am on Saturday.
Fadnavis was back as chief minister with NCP legislature party leader Ajit Pawar taking oath as deputy chief minister.
The two were sworn in at Raj Bhavan around 7.30 am.
The news stunned the state, even as speculation began about how Fadnavis and Ajit Pawar would cobble up support of 145 MLAs, necessary to prove the majority, began.
A Congress leader said on the condition of anonymity that his party had an inkling that a section of the NCP could join hands with the BJP if the Congress-NCP- Sena alliance failed to materialise.
"The BJP central leadership is trying to persuade Sharad Pawar through (NCP leader) Praful Patel to align with BJP, saying it will help Patel and Ajit Pawar in the cases being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate (where Ajit Pawar and Patel are named)," the Congress leader alleged.
Sources said the feud between Ajit Pawar on one side and Sharad Pawar and his daughter and MP Supriya Sule on the other was brewing for the last few months, triggered by disputes over ticket distribution for the Lok Sabha and the assembly elections.
When Sharad Pawar decided to visit the ED office and party workers from all over the state gathered in Mumbai, Ajit Pawar was conspicuous by his absence. He resigned as MLA on the same evening, distracting attention from Pawar senior's astute move to dare the EC to question him.
Next day, a tearful Ajit Pawar told the media that he quit because he was pained that the ED had named not only him but also his uncle Sharad Pawar in the alleged Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank scam.
A hint that all was not well in the family was again given last week when Ajit Pawar stormed out of NCP's meeting at Silver Oak, Sharad Pawar's residence, saying that a scheduled meeting with the Congress had been cancelled and he was heading for Baramati, his constituency.
But later the meeting took place, and NCP leaders said it was an attempt to keep the media at bay.
The sources claimed that Ajit Pawar was quite angry when his son Parth was initially denied NCP ticket from Maval Lok Sabha seat. Parth got the ticket in the end, but lost by a huge margin.
The emergence of Rohit Pawar, grandson of another of Sharad Pawar's brothers, as a new-generation leader from the family and his victory from Karjat-Jamkhed assembly seat only added to Ajit Pawar's insecurity, the sources said.
"We look at the developments only as a family feud that has come out in the open," another Congress leader said.
It is not clear how many of the 54 MLAs of the NCP are supporting Ajit Pawar. Sharad Pawar claimed that only about a dozen MLAs were with Ajit when he was sworn in, and three of them returned to the party fold later while two others were on the way too.