So who’s the Big Boss?

Writing in my column ‘anandan on Wednesday’ earlier this week, I had expressed concern that Maharashtra’s new Chief Minister, Prithviraj Chavan, might be a pushover for Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar’s nephew and the state’s new Deputy Chief Minister.

Chavan is a novice in state politics and Ajit is as arrogant as they come – even without the benefit of the office of the Deputy Chief Minister, he was wont to bully Congress CMs in the past to get his way.

He began his new innings by demanding that the formula of 23-20 berths in the cabinet be modified in favour of the NCP to 22-21, claimed that it was he who had got the top cops to act against the rapist police inspector who is absconding — and many more things besides. Clearly, he wanted to demonstrate that he was The Boss and completely in charge and control of the situation. But as the oath-taking ceremony unfolded on Friday it was obvious that Chavan was no pushover and with nary a fuss he had quite upstaged Ajit Pawar.

How he did it is more interesting. Now, as I said in my column, Sharad Pawar has no love lost for Chavan but he also knows when things might be working to his advantage and, clearly, this was one of those times. Not because he might want the NCP to have a larger say in government and, if Chavan makes this a habit, it flies for Sharad Pawar. But because, primarily, it helps to contain his own nephew.

Ordinarily, Chavan would not give Pawar the time of the day and the Maratha warlord would have had to be dependent upon his own men in the government to continue being influential in Maharashtra. However, Ajit is on the edges of a rebellion within his own party – many of his uncle’s decisions in recent months have not gone down well with him and Sharad Pawar cannot afford a break-up of his party at this juncture.

To that extent, he has been wiser than Bal Thackeray was, by declaring no obvious heir – the Shiv Sena break up became inevitable only when/after Thackeray chose his son over his nephew as heir-apparent and the more experienced Raj, of course, felt left out and betrayed. He was bound to strike out on his own once it was clear he had no future in the Shiv Sena. Pawar, on the other hand, has always insisted that he need not choose a successor because `someone will rise from the grassroots’.

But his party has been steadily losing touch with the grassroots. Moreover, there is a growing feeling within the NCP that only two persons have a bright future in the party – Ajit and Pawar’s daughter, Supriya Sule. And, between the two, at least Ajit knows who Pawar will eventually root for.

When Surpiya was first inducted into the party, Ajit had been extremely indiscreet by saying loudly in the presence of a lot of reporters, “That does not make her Number Two automatically! Is Rahul Gandhi Number Two in the Congress just because he is a MP? There are so many others with prior claim in that party. So will it be with the NCP.’’

But that was just some wishful thinking. It is becoming more and more obvious to Ajit that that might not really be so. The Congress is yet a little correct about such things as imposing a comparative greenhorn on leaders of enormous seniority; the NCP is not. But while all other NCP leaders have the Congress as an option to fall back upon, Ajit has no way out of the impasse.

And so Pawar had to give in to his demand to be made deputy chief minister, although, as every one knows, the post has no constitutional validity. But having been outmanouevred by his nephew on this one, I am amazed at the enormous luck this wily fox has had throughout his political career – in fact, I have always described him as a cat with nine lives.

Just when it seemed as though Pawar might now have to kow-tow to his own nephew, Ajit’s over-ambitiousness made Chavan beat a path to Pawar’s own door to let the Maratha warlord know that the old formula prevails. And Pawar accepted that decision with alacrity. After all, although that gives the NCP one less cabinet berth, it keeps Ajit in his place and lets him know in no uncertain terms that he is still not making all the decisions in the party.

Between Thackeray and Pawar, I always considered Pawar the more astute politician. But it is now clear that even he is running out of options. He must secure his daughter’s future and he cannot do that without in some way sacrificing Ajit’s ambitions.

The situation is very piquant for Ajit, too – he is recognised in Maharashtra only by virtue of his connection to Sharad Pawar. If he splits the NCP, I am sure, he will not be as successful as Raj Thackeray has been with his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Every other NCP man has his own feet to stand on, not so Ajit. He has even less of a future without Pawar than Raj had/has without Thackeray.

I guess this is what being stuck between a rock and a very hard place means. I wonder where both the Pawars or even the NCP go from here. Because this is clearly the end of the road for both – and it is only accommodation by the Congress that can ensure their survival.

And with Chavan in no mood to let Ajit get away with his bullying ways, Ajit loses even if he seems to have won by grabbing the office of the Deputy Chief Minister. And Pawar, as ever, wins even if he seems to have lost both a cabinet berth and the ability to command his nephew. Clearly, he is still the Big Boss of the NCP!

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