Unpredictability is the only predictability about the granddaddy of Indian politics that is Sharad Pawar, who announced his resignation as NCP chief out of the blue, only to take it back three days later saying he can't disrespect his supporters. This is the same Sharad Pawar who shocked the opposition conglomerate with his divergence on the Adani probe, just when the world thought these parties finally had a unifying factor.
Pawar is known for his unorthodoxy in politics. For him, politics is not unidimensional, neither is it a moral journey. For him, politics is the art of winning friends and keeping options open, without being imprisoned in any ideological prism or loyalty. It is a game of power, and it should be played without any compunctions.
The episode underlines the fact that Pawar is losing his grip over his own party, which he ran with an iron fist for more than two decades, and in his own game of survival, he played a blinder.
Pawar's resignation was an emotional card. No one should be under the illusion that he was trying to thwart a BJP plan to poach his MLAs. This was an attempt to spare himself and his party what the Shiv Sena under Uddhav Thackeray had to suffer last year, when a revolt brought down the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra.
To say that he was ready to pass the baton to the next generation was a smokescreen to hide his disappointment. It's no secret that his own family member was out to ditch him and for weeks, Pawar had been trying to salvage the situation. But when it seemed that he had failed, he played the trump card.
It was no surprise that when senior leaders of the NCP were in tears and protesting against Pawar's resignation, the only person who was unmoved was Ajit Pawar. Sharad Pawar's ambitious nephew has long lived in his uncle's shadow and seems eager to chart his own political journey. Let's not forget that it was Ajit Pawar who crossed the Rubicon on November 23, 2019, with an oath ceremony at daybreak with BJP's Devendra Fadnavis. Sharad Pawar woke up to a coup. It's another matter that Pawar senior prevailed and managed to keep his flock together, and Ajit Pawar had to come back like the prodigal son, within four days.
But let's remember that despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling Sharad Pawar his friend, two senior NCP leaders ended up in jail. Anil Deshmukh had to spend more than a year in prison and his colleague Nawab Malik is still incarcerated. Another close associate, Sanjay Raut, though he belongs to Uddhav Thackeray's Shiv Sena, also spent three months in jail.
During the 2019 Maharashtra assembly election, BJP stalwarts had promised people that if the party came to power, Ajit Pawar would be jailed. The pressure of probe agencies is intense, and Ajit Pawar's eventual defection cannot be ruled out. Pawar's resignation drama has only postponed the crisis. Sooner or later, Ajit Pawar has to decide.
It is also true that NCP leaders know Sharad Pawar, 82, is not getting any younger. Ajit Pawar, 63, is the only one in the party who can carry forward the legacy of the Pawar clan. Sharad Pawar's daughter Supriya Sule can't be expected to match the political guile of her father. At best, she can be a good MP who can speak well in the parliament but to run a party at a time when Modi is in charge and "Operation Lotus" is powered by state patronage, one needs to channel a wily fox. Ajit Pawar seems to have inherited that talent from his uncle. Besides, Pawar said his daughter is not interested in taking over as party chief.
Sharad Pawar knows that the Game of Thrones overrides family bonds. He is aware of how his friend HD Deve Gowda was flummoxed by his own son, HD Kumaraswamy, who aligned with the BJP to become the Chief Minister of Karnataka in 2006. Deve Gowda's biographer, Sugata Srinivasaraju, writes that the former PM was so shocked he literally went through a 'near-death-incident'. Pawar is wiser after his friend's experience, and he does not want history to repeat itself. No wonder he played the emotional card, uniting the party for the time being. Now, for some time, it will be difficult for Ajit Pawar to ignore the emotional outpourings of his party colleagues. It will also be a moral dilemma for potential NCP defectors - if they still decide to cross over, then they may face the wrath of supporters, and the public at large.
There's no denying that despite his age, Sharad Pawar is still a top mass leader in Maharashtra. People have huge respect for him, and he is seen as a true Maratha warrior who never bowed down to Delhi. At a young age, Pawar defied Indira Gandhi, broke the Congress in Maharashtra, and formed his own government. Later, he again revolted against Sonia Gandhi when she became the president of the Congress and launched the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
Pawar has shrewdly hinted that potential defectors are going against basic Maratha ethos and that might impact their future.
Such leaders can take lessons from the Shiv Sena defectors led by Eknath Shinde. Today, though he is Chief Minister with more than 2/3rd MLAs with him, Shinde looks like a pale shadow of himself. It's common knowledge in Maharashtra that he is only a frontman for the BJP's bigger gameplan and that Uddhav Thackeray is gaining more and more sympathy every day. But the vice grip of BJP is so ridiculously intimidating that Ajit Pawar and his supporters can only ignore it at their own peril. Pawar's resignation drama is only a preview.
It will be a mistake to assume that the crisis in the NCP is over. It's only a temporary truce.
(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.