Within 10 days of 15 parties resolving in Patna that they would fight the 2024 Lok Sabha elections unitedly against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) suffered a split on Sunday, with his nephew Ajit Pawar being sworn in as a deputy chief minister in the BJP-Shiv Sena coalition government in Maharashtra.
Eight other NCP MLAs, including senior leader Chhagan Bhujbal, the party’s OBC face, took oath as ministers at a ceremony at Raj Bhavan in Mumbai in the afternoon. Sources in the Raj Bhavan told PTI that Ajit had the support of 40 of the NCP’s 53 MLAs and six of its nine MLCs. This is the fifth occasion — including once in 2019 when he staged a late-night coup only to return to his uncle’s fold later — that he has been appointed a deputy CM.
The party’s Rajya Sabha MP and working president Praful Patel, considered close to the senior Pawar, attended the oath-taking ceremony. The split in the NCP comes amid speculation of a reshuffle of the Union Cabinet where the BJP may give representation to several of its allies, including those from Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde-led Shiv Sena and the Ajit Pawar-led NCP faction. Elections to the 288-member state Assembly are due in October 2024.
The development was a jolt to the leadership of Sharad Pawar, who had tried to prevent such an eventuality in May when he quit as party chief only to take back his resignation days later after party leaders and workers protested. He and his daughter Supriya Sule attended the June 23 Patna meeting of the opposition parties.
Sharad Pawar in the evening said he would rebuild the party and announced a party meeting on July 5. The Congress would also get its legislators together in a couple of days.
Sanjay Raut of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena faction said the BJP’s desperation to split the NCP betrayed that the Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis government was unstable. Opposition leaders said the events were further proof of the BJP’s misuse of central probe agencies. They pointed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Bhopal on Tuesday during which he listed alleged scams involving leaders of opposition parties, including that of the NCP leadership.
On June 10, on the 25th foundation day of the NCP, Sharad Pawar appointed Sule and Patel as working presidents. While Sule was seen as the successor of 82-year-old party patriarch, Ajit — who had run the party in Maharashtra and was the leader of the opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly — was not entrusted with any responsibility.
Addressing reporters after taking the oath, Ajit said there was no split in the NCP and it would contest all future elections on the NCP’s name and symbol. “If we can go with the Shiv Sena, we can go with the BJP, as well. The same thing happened in Nagaland,” he said. In Nagaland, the NCP decided its six MLAs would support the NDPP-BJP government. The Cabinet portfolios will be announced in a couple of days, he said.
Apart from Ajit and Bhujbal, others sworn in as ministers were Dilip Walse Patil, Hasan Mushrif, Dhananjay Munde, Aditi Tatkare, Dharmarao Atram, Anil Patil, and Sanjay Bansode.
Maharashtra CM Shinde said: “When a deserving party worker (Ajit) gets a secondary role, such things happen.” “Now the double engine government has a third engine. The state will sprint (on the path of development). Now, we have one CM and two deputy chief ministers. This will help faster development of the state,” he told reporters. BJP’s Fadnavis is the other deputy CM.
Earlier in the day, Ajit met some party leaders and MLAs at his official residence ‘Devgiri’ in Mumbai. Sule was among the leaders present at the meeting but left early.
Congress General Secretary Jairam Ramesh said: “Clearly, the BJP’s washing machine has resumed its operations. A number of new entrants into the BJP-led alliance in Maharashtra today had been facing serious corruption charges with the ED, the CBI, and Income Tax authorities after them. Now they have all got a clean chit.”