As the build-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections gathers momentum over the next 12 months, Maharashtra presents a unique challenge for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Maharashtra is trickier than states such as Bihar, Bengal and Karnataka where political analysts predict that the Hindutva party will find the going tough.

In recent weeks, speculation has been rife that Ajit Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party will lead a group of MLAs to join the Maharashtra government. The government is currently headed by Eknath Shinde, who, along with 16 MLAs, broke ranks with Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena to join hands with the BJP in June.

Twenty-four more MLAs later joined Shinde. Shinde holds the chief minister’s position while Devendra Fadnavis of the BJP is his deputy.

But the contentious split landed in the Supreme Court, which will decide whether the rebellion by Shinde and his group amounts to defection. If the court rules against the Shinde faction and disqualifies the MLAs, the government will teeter on the brink of a minority. It is to ward off such a possibility that the BJP has been trying to rope in Ajit Pawar and his group, observers say.

Ironically, if Ajit Pawar – whose uncle Sharad Pawar is the head of the Nationalist Congress Party – does jump ship, it will create a host of other problems for the BJP.

The BJP’s troubles in Maharashtra began immediately after the 2019 Assembly elections, which it had fought in alliance with Shiv Sena, its partner for over 25 years. But the two parted ways after the Sena sought equal time in the chief minister’s chair, demanding that each party share the job for two-and-a-half years.

The Sena said that this was what BJP leader Amit Shah had promised while saffron party said that no such promise had ever been made.

In November 2019, the BJP made a vain bid to form a government with the Nationalist Congress Party’s Ajit Pawar but had to eat humble pie within 72 hours and pack up. This paved the way for the Shiv Sena, the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party to form the Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance. The new government was led by Sena chief Thackeray.

With the Shiv Sena joining hands with its long-standing ideological adversaries, Maharashtra politics had been led into unchartered territory where nothing can be ruled out of the realm of possibility.

The plot took another twist in June last year, when Shinde and MLAs supporting him broke ranks with the Sena to join the BJP, causing the Maha Vikas Aghadi government to collapse.

At a rally by the Shiv Sena Uddhav Thackeray faction. Credit: PTI.

Ajit Pawar and CM ambitions

The rumours about Ajit Pawar joining the BJP bubbled up again early in April. Ajit Pawar raised eyebrows again about a fortnight ago when he was unreachable and appeared to have gone missing. (He later said he had been ill.) He also skipped a Maha Vikas Aghadi rally in Pune on April 17 and decided not to speak at a rally in Nagpur on April 16.

On April 19, he seemed to put an end to the rumours by telling journalists that he was not going anywhere and that he would stay with the Nationalist Congress Party till the end.

But on Friday, he told a Marathi news channel that he would like to become chief minister even before the 2024 Assembly elections. Nothing points towards his shift towards the BJP better than this open expression of his ambition.

Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar indirectly strengthened the speculation about his nephew by telling Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray faction, that a few MLAs might leave the party due to some pressure and that it would be their personal choice.

But Ajit Pawar’s manoeuvres have put the BJP on the spot.

Nationalist Congress Party leader Ajit Pawar. Credit: PTI.

‘Pressure’ by Central agencies

Sharad Pawar has spoken about “pressure” on some of his MLAs, hinting at the hanging sword of the Central investigating agencies. In recent months, members of Opposition parties have accused the Narendra Modi government of putting their members under pressure by misusing agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate.

If that tactic is used against Ajit Pawar, he will be left with no option but to get cleaned up in the BJP’s “washing machine”. The allegation by Opposition parties that corruption charges against their leaders are suddenly washed clean if these politicians join the BJP will be given new life.

If Ajit Pawar does break ranks, the BJP would be confronted with the question of what to do with the Shinde faction. What if it threatens to quit?

It is another matter that Shinde and his ministers have nowhere to go. Leaving the government will have the potential to push them into political oblivion and make them completely irrelevant.

If Shinde still decides to part ways with the BJP, the Hindutva party will not be able to do much since it has foreclosed the option of using Central agencies: using these agencies will only prove that it had coerced Shinde and his followers to break the Shiv Sena and that Hindutva and the ideals of Sena founder Bal Thackeray were not the bond between the BJP and the Shinde group.

But if the BJP does manage to coax the Shinde faction to stay with it in government, question will arise about the role Ajit Pawar will play in the cabinet.

As long as Shinde remains with the BJP, Pawar will not get the chief minister’s position he craves. The deputy chief minister’s seat will also be ruled out since that post is neither available (it is currently held by the BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis) nor will Pawar agree to play second fiddle to Shinde.

It is clear that he will not settle for a cabinet minister’s position in Shinde’s team.

Even in the far-fetched alternative scenario that the BJP leadership chooses to shift Fadnavis to the Centre, the question will remain about who will lead the government in Maharashtra?

It is completely untenable for the BJP to move Fadnavis upstairs since it would mean dislodging their own man to hand over the state to two politicians from Opposition parties.

In hindsight, BJP’s self-styled Chanakyas would have done well to rescue their alliance with the Sena by sharing the chief minister’s position.

Another factor that has made observers believe that the BJP is in trouble in Maharashtra is a purported party survey that is said to claim that the BJP’s electoral appeal is slipping. This is said to be the reason it has not announced dates for elections to municipal corporations around the state.

The BJP’s best bet in this scenario is that the Supreme Court will disqualify the 16 MLAs led by Eknath Shinde. That will relieve the party of the burden of carrying the Shinde group along. How it will be able to extricate itself from this extremely tricky situation will be something to keenly watch.

Vivek Deshpande worked with The Indian Express and is now a freelance journalist in Nagpur.