In the tumultuous realm of Maharashtra’s political theatre, where alliances ebb and flow, one figure stands unshaken, reshaping the landscape with each passing storm: Sharad Pawar. The 2019 Lok Sabha elections swept the State in a Modi wave, with the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance capturing 41 out of 48 Lok Sabha seats. It seemed inevitable that the State assembly polls would follow suit.

But amidst this political tsunami, Sharad Pawar stood firm, a beacon of opposition unity. Despite key members of his party defecting to the BJP, Pawar embarked on a whirlwind tour, rallying support and securing victories for 54 NCP and 44 Congress candidates. His political acumen was on full display post-election, orchestrating a strategic alliance between the Shiv Sena, Congress, and NCP, resulting in Uddhav Thackeray assuming the Chief Minister’s mantle.

Fast forward to 2024, BJP has hit back and the political landscape has shifted once again. Out of the 54 MLAs who stood by Pawar, 40 have now sided with his nephew, Ajit Pawar, who has not only taken the party name and symbol but also aligned with the BJP. Sharad Pawar now stands at a crossroads, facing not only political upheaval but also health issues at the age of 83.

Battle ahead

Despite facing a significant exodus of leaders and questions about the future of his party, Sharad Pawar remains resolute. When asked who the promising leader left in his party was, he responded with his trademark wit and confidence, raising his hand and declaring, “Sharad Pawar.” He says that his party leaders have deserted him fearing Enforcement Directorate (ED) action, which, Pawar says, is the BJP’s wing to break the opposition.

As Sharad Pawar confronts what may be the most challenging battle of his life, he finds strong support within his family. The majority of his family members, including Ajit’s brother Sriniwas, his nephew Yugendra Pawar (Sriniwas’ son), and various uncles and aunts of Ajit, stand firmly by Pawar’s side. In contrast, Ajit Pawar has support from his wife and two sons.

In 2019, Ajit attempted to split the NCP and align with the BJP. He even took oath as deputy chief minister in the Devendra Fadnavis cabinet, hoping to gather support in the Assembly. However, Sharad Pawar maintained firm control over the party, and Ajit failed to rally enough MLAs to his side. He eventually returned to his uncle, seeking forgiveness, and was reinstated as deputy chief minister in the Uddhav Thackeray cabinet.

Following the split in the Shiv Sena, when rebel leader Eknath Shinde became Chief Minister, Ajit Pawar and his supporters urged Sharad Pawar to support the BJP-led government.

“Despite pressure from NCP MLAs, many of whom were facing ED action, Pawar stood his ground. He refused to align with the BJP, insisting that the MLAs face the ED and seek public judgment in the elections. One of the former Ministers told him that, once he is put in the jail, he would not come out alive. But Pawar refused to give up, said one of the insiders in the Pawar camp who had witnessed the developments. He told businessline that Pawar said that at the last stage of his political career he didn’t want to join hands with the BJP and lose his ground in a Modi wave. Pawar even gave his family members, including his daughter Supriya Sule, the freedom to make their own decisions regarding the BJP said this insider. “My experience tells me that if you are ready to fight, people will support you,” he says.

BJP’s challenge

Meanwhile, the BJP is gearing up to challenge Sharad Pawar’s stronghold in Baramati, represented by his daughter Supriya. Ajit Pawar’s wife, Sunetra, is expected to contest the election as a BJP-NCP (Ajit Pawar) candidate. The BJP is also promoting Ajit as a leader in the sugar belt of the State, where Sharad Pawar has maintained strong control, thwarting BJP’s attempts to make inroads.