MUMBAI, Maharashtra — Last week, a photo of NCP supremo Sharad Pawar addressing a rally in Satara in Maharashtra during heavy rains went viral on social media. In the picture, the veteran politician is soaked to the skin but standing upright at a podium, speaking to his supporters.
Many commentators lauded the 78-year-old for leading the opposition’s fight from the front at a time when the BJP was expected to deliver a clean sweep.
The spirited campaign seems to be paying off—as per early trends, the NCP is leading in 55 assembly seats out of 288 (they had won 41 seats in the 2014 election) while the BJP is leading in 102, much below the halfway mark of 144—if this trend holds up, the BJP’s tally will not only be less than its 2014 numbers, it will also be overtly dependent on alliance partner Shiv Sena for the next five years.
Just a couple of months ago, this kind of resurgence for the NCP had seemed impossible. The party was plagued by large-scale defections to the BJP, especially in its bastion of Western Maharashtra—it was especially hard hit by the exit of Udayanraje Bhosale, a descendant of Maratha king Shivaji (Bhosale lost by over 85,000 votes in the Lok Sabha bypoll in Satara, which NCP and Pawar took on as a “prestige issue”).
Even some of Pawar’s trusted aides and relatives ditched his party and jumped ship to the BJP. Pawar was visibly rattled and also lost his cool in a press conference for the first time, though he denied any worries later in an interview with HuffPost India.
He got another shock when he was named in a bank scam case by the Enforcement Directorate.
The first sign that Pawar and the NCP would not take this lying down came when the leader turned the tables on the law enforcement agency by offering to appear before it voluntarily—a senior NCP leader described the development to HuffPost India as “a full toss and that too on the last ball of the match”.
Eventually, the Mumbai Police had to go to Pawar’s residence to request him not to appear before the ED, fearing a law-and-order problem in Mumbai.
By the time Pawar decided to give a breather to the ED and Mumbai Police, NCP workers, who had been on the backfoot until then, were on the street, angry and battle-ready.
Pawar sensed this and embarked on a statewide Yatra, even as he kept flying to Delhi to strike a seat-sharing deal with ally Congress.
The Congress leadership, however, was missing throughout the election.
There was no joint rally by Congress-NCP leaders and even prominent Congress and NCP faces in the state remained confined to their own regions and constituencies.
The only exception was Pawar, who virtually ran the entire opposition campaign in the election.
He crisscrossed the state and publicly challenged chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and other BJP leaders.
Not all quiet on the family front
Pawar also had to battle numerous problems within his family.
His nephew and former Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar resigned as an MLA the day Sharad Pawar was to appear before ED. Ajit mysteriously disappeared after resigning, only to appear a day later to hold a meeting with his uncle in Navi Mumbai. After that, he broke down at a press conference, claiming that he was disturbed as Pawar’s name was dragged into the bank scam. While he claimed that everything was fine in the Pawar family, his unease was said to be related to the rise of another Pawar in the family: Rohit Pawar.
Over the past two-three years, Sharad Pawar has been quietly promoted his other grandnephew, Rohit.
Rohit was elected to Pune Zila Parishad in 2017 and is reportedly popular with NCP cadre as well. But it was his presence by the side of Sharad Pawar throughout the Lok Sabha campaign which appears to have rattled many inside the family.
Ajit Pawar has denied that he was uncomfortable with Rohit’s entry in politics.
“People said the same thing when Supriya (Pawar’s daughter) entered politics. Now again they are saying it when Rohit might contest assembly election,” Ajit Pawar had said in his Mumbai press conference.
However, Ajit Pawar continued to make controversial statements.
In an interview with a Marathi news channel, he claimed that he opposed some senior leader’s plans to arrest Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in 2000. There was speculation that he was talking about senior NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal, who was the state home minister in 2000.
But Sharad Pawar appeared in control throughout. Ajit Pawar addressed public meetings for Rohit in Karjat-Jamkhed assembly segment in Ahmednagar district. Even Bhujbal turned up in support of Rohit, who is being seen as the political heir of Pawar.
As per early trends, Rohit is leading from Karjat-Jamkhed despite facing a tough election, as this seat was considered a BJP bastion for over 35 years. He was pitted against Fadnavis’s close aide and cabinet minister Ram Shinde. Ajit Pawar is also leading by over 42,000 from the Pawar family pocket borough, Baramati, considered the safest seat for the NCP.
With the Congress reduced to the fourth player in the assembly, Pawar is likely to lead the opposition charge in the new assembly, while BJP will battle a stronger Shiv Sena.
“The results have shown that people don’t tolerate the arrogance of power,” Pawar told reporters in Mumbai on Thursday.