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The Hindu
The Hindu
Shoumojit Banerjee

Sharad’s ‘Pawar play’ queers the pitch for the ruling alliance in high-stakes Lok Sabha seats of Madha, Baramati, Beed

Nationalist Congress Party (SP) chief Sharad Pawar is living up to his reputation as the the ‘canny old man’ of Maharashtra politics, as he queers the pitch for his nephew, the rebel NCP leader Ajit Pawar, and his allies in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by exploiting schisms within the ruling Mahayuti coalition in key seats ahead of the upcoming Lok Sabha election.

While Mr. Ajit Pawar — who is expected to field his wife Sunetra as the Mahayuti’s candidate for the high-stakes Baramati Lok Sabha contest — finds himself increasingly isolated within the Pawar clan, Mr. Sharad Pawar now has the BJP in a fix in the crucial Madha and Beed constituencies.

Family divide

Recently, Mr. Ajit Pawar’s elder brother Srinivas Pawar, his sister-in-law Sharmila, and nephew Yugendra openly came out in support of Mr. Sharad Pawar, and have thrown themselves into campaigning for Supriya Sule, who is Mr. Sharad Pawar’s daughter and the incumbent MP in Baramati.

According to observers, Mr. Sharad Pawar’s diplomacy has also ensured that the three Opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) parties — Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena (UBT), the Congress, and the NCP (SP) — work in smooth coordination. A case in point is that Ms. Sule’s rallies in Baramati are always well-attended by Sena (UBT) leaders like Sanjay Raut, and senior Congressman Balasaheb Thorat.

Stirring the pot

Well aware of the BJP’s discomfiture after absorbing Mr. Ajit Pawar’s NCP faction and its effect on the BJP’s relations with its smaller allies within the NDA, the 83-year-old NCP (SP) patriarch has attempted to detach parties like the Mahadev Jankar-led Rashtriya Samaj Paksha (RSP), and the Shiv Sangram, led by the late Vinayak Mete, an influential Maratha community leader.

Pawar senior has offered Mr. Jankar — an influential Dhangar leader, with a strong base in Baramati and Solapur — the chance to contest the Madha Lok Sabha seat. The BJP has already announced that it will field Ranjitsinh Naik-Nimbalkar, the sitting MP from Madha, as its candidate for the seat, but its decision has caused serious resentment from its ally, the Ajit Pawar-led NCP faction.

BJP-affiliated sugar baron Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, the patriarch of the Mohite-Patil clan which constitutes the dominant political aristocracy of Madha, is upset at Mr. Naik-Nimbalkar’s candidacy. A stalwart ex-NCP leader, Mr. Mohite-Patil was once a close aide of Mr. Sharad Pawar and has previously served as Maharashtra’s Deputy CM. Recent attempts by Pawar senior to woo him back into his fold have set alarm bells ringing within the BJP.

Undercutting BJP candidate

Complicating matters in the Madha Lok Sabha seat is yet another important local figure: Ramraje Naik-Nimbalkar, a member of an erstwhile Maratha royal family from Phaltan, who is aligned with Ajit Pawar’s NCP faction.

Both Mr. Ramraje Naik-Nimbalkar and Mr. Mohite-Patil, along with several other local leaders, held a meeting at Solapur’s Akluj earlier this week where they vowed to undercut Mr. Ranjitsinh Naik-Nimbalkar’s chances in the upcoming election. “This BJP candidate is completely unacceptable to us. A Mahayuti at a local level is not possible. We will not obey coalition dharma unless this candidate is replaced,” said a supporter of Mr. Ramraje Naik-Nimbalkar.

OBC vs Maratha

Meanwhile, even as the BJP has declared Pankaja Munde — daughter of the late BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde — as its candidate for the Beed Lok Sabha seat, a touch of ‘Pawar play’ is turning a potentially ‘safe’ seat for the saffron party into a danger zone. Beed is the stronghold of the Munde clan, which is an other backward class (OBC) community.

There is widespread speculation that Mr. Sharad Pawar could field Jyoti Mete from Beed; she is the widow of the late Shiv Sangram leader Vinayak Mete, an ardent Maratha quota supporter who died in a road accident in 2022. If she contests the seat, Beed could turn into a potential OBC versus Maratha conflict against the backdrop of Maratha quota activist Manoj Jarange-Patil’s sweeping agitation.

Of the approximately 21 lakh eligible voters in Beed, 7.5 lakh are Marathas (a little over 30%) while six lakh are from the OBC community, with Muslim and Ambedkarite communities accounting for around 5.5 lakh voters.

Defections on the rise

Earlier, on Wednesday, Mr. Sharad Pawar gave a jolt to his nephew after Bajrang Sonawane, a leader of Mr. Ajit Pawar’s faction of the NCP switched to Pawar senior’s camp, boosting his chances. Mr. Sonawane had polled more than five lakh votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, but was defeated by Pritam Munde, Ms. Munde’s sister and the sitting MP from Beed, who was dropped by the BJP this time.

Before poaching Mr. Sonawane, Mr. Sharad Pawar also engineered the defection of sitting MLA Nilesh Lanke from his nephew’s camp. Mr. Lanke, the MLA from Parner, is reportedly being touted as the NCP (SP) candidate for the Ahmednagar Lok Sabha seat, where the BJP has fielded Sujay Vikhe-Patil, the son of senior BJP leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil.

“The numbers of incoming leaders from the other side will only increase in the coming days once the Mahayuti announces all their candidates,” quipped Mr. Sharad Pawar.

Reaping the whirlwind

“By ensuring splits within Ajit Pawar’s NCP camp and resentment between local BJP and Ajit Pawar-led NCP leaders on key seats, Sharad Pawar is trying to hamstring the ruling Mahayuti in crucial, high-prestige Lok Sabha seats,” says senior political analyst Vivek Bhavsar.

Furthermore, in the undivided NCP, it was Mr. Ajit Pawar who had acted as his uncle’s ‘hatchet man’ during poll campaigns, often earning the ire not only of then-opponents like the BJP, but also incurring the wrath of leaders in the Congress as well, many of whom are now in the BJP.

Mr. Ajit Pawar is certainly reaping the whirlwind in Baramati: while his bitter rival, ex-Congressman-turned-BJP leader Harshavardhan Patil remains ambiguous over campaigning for Ajit’s candidate, Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena leader Vijay Shivtare remains firm on entering the fray as the third candidate.

Campaigning in Indapur, part of the Baramati Lok Sabha constituency, on Saturday, Mr. Shivtare said: “There is no way I am going to campaign for the ‘clock symbol’ [symbol of Mr. Ajit Pawar’s NCP faction]. I am representing the 5.5 lakh voters of Baramati who had voted against the Pawar clan in the last general election. I am acting as a representative of the common man and am pitted against the Pawar family.”

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