On March 16, Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule published a photograph of herself with four members of the extended Pawar family on her Instagram account. The photograph was captioned, “Fun Time With Family!”. The photograph notwithstanding, the division inside the Pawar family in Maharashtra has suddenly burst into the open.

Though this rift is one small wheel operating within the big wheel of the battle for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, it is one that could affect the election outcome in this western state.

Not unexpectedly, the Bharatiya Janata Party is pulling out all stops to win Maharashtra, which, with 48 Lok Sabha seats, has emerged as the second-most important electoral battleground after Uttar Pradesh that has 80 seats. The saffron party has not only sewn up an alliance here with a highly difficult ally, the Shiv Sena, but is also pursuing a strategy to ensure that the rival Nationalist Congress Party-Congress alliance is weakened as much as possible.

On February 13, when Sharad Pawar announced his decision to contest the elections from Madha, which he represented from 2009 to 2014, it took many by surprise. This is because he had made it clear in 2014 itself that he was done with Lok Sabha elections, having won 14 of them during his 50-year-long political career.

But even more surprising was Sharad Pawar’s decision to opt out of the race on March 11, particularly when he had declared at the time of announcing his candidature that it was he, not Parth Pawar, the son of his nephew Ajit Pawar, who was going to contest the elections.

Naturally, there is speculation about the reasons that compelled the Maratha strongman to take such a decision in the midst of a high-stakes election. Many saw it as a sign that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is returning to power at the Centre as the Pawar patriarch is known to be a quintessential political weathercock who can smell the direction in which the wind will blow.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said as much, describing Sharad Pawar’s decision not to contest as a “big victory for the BJP and Shiv Sena”. He also said that the Nationalist Congress Party leader had seen the writing on the wall because he might have been defeated in Madha. Though The Nationalist Congress Party is indeed riven by factionalism in that constituency, this seemed unlikely, given Sharad Pawar’s standing.

Infighting in NCP

Sharad Pawar himself was witness to an ugly spat between two Nationalist Congress Party factions at a meeting in Phaltan in Satara district on February 22. Despite repeated pleas, he was unable to quieten the warring groups and left the venue in disgust.

That something like this could happen in his presence was unthinkable in the past. It is equally unprecedented that the founder of the Nationalist Congress Party and the patriarch of the Pawar clan should be the one to climb down after ruling out Parth Pawar’s candidature when he announced his own candidature.

Sharad Pawar had reportedly confided in colleagues and friends that he had been persuaded by leaders like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu and others to come to the Lok Sabha, as that would put him in a better position to coordinate between different parties after the elections.

It was hardly a secret that Sharad Pawar would have been the front runner for the country’s top job if the Opposition were to get the requisite numbers to form the government at the Centre in May. He seemed to be better placed this time than in 1991, when PV Narasimha Rao had upstaged him, though everything was obviously contingent on the numbers regional parties rustled up.

Pawar would have been acceptable to the largest number of regional chieftains, possibly also to some of the non-aligned ones like Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao and YSR Congress leader Jagan Mohan Reddy, who are keeping their options open. Over the years, Pawar has helped them, and enjoys a rapport with them.

The Opposition camp had seemed optimistic after the Congress won three North Indian states in December. The Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party had tied up in Uttar Pradesh, and the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra. Alliances were being forged between the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka and the Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand. But with the Pulwama suicide bombing on February 14, and the Indian air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan, on February 26, the BJP seized the initiative once again and the Opposition began to lose steam.

Sharad Pawar with his grandnephew Parth Pawar. (Photo credit: Facebook/Parth Pawar).

Keeping the peace

It is said that Sharad Pawar decided to take a back seat to keep the clan together and prevent the dissensions within from bursting into the open. Ajit Pawar, who was the deputy chief minister in the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government in Maharashtra, has been more assertive than usual this time, insisting that his son be fielded from Maval. The party announced Parth Pawar’s candidature from Maval on March 15.

If he is elected, he will be another Pawar in Delhi along with Supriya Sule, who has been overseeing Nationalist Congress Party affairs and nurturing cross-party links at the national level, in what a was a division of power between her and Ajit Pawar, who looks after state affairs.

There is another wheel within a wheel at work inside the Pawar family, and that is the rise of Rohit Pawar, the grandson of Sharad Pawar’s older brother Appasaheb Pawar. A member of the Pune Zilla Parishad, he has been active during the last year, obviously with an eye on the Assembly elections due six months down the line. That is why Ajit Pawar may view his rise with wariness. When Parth Pawar’s candidature was announced, Rohit Pawar said in an interview that it was not going to be easy for him in Maval.

Ajit Pawar is Sharad Pawar's nephew and Parth Pawar's father. (Photo credit: Facebook/Ajit Pawar).

BJP’s Dhangar card

Then there is Baramati, which Sule has represented twice, and is contesting from again. The constituency has been a fiefdom of the Pawars, and is known for its development – its education institutions, covered drains, drip irrigation, and food processing industry.

But here, Sule has to contend with what is called the “Dhangar card”, which the BJP is using to make the going tough for her. Baramati is reported to have three three lakh Dhangars, a nomadic tribe, which has been agitating for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe category in order to avail of reservations in government jobs and higher education.

Sule’s victory margin in 2014 was brought down to 69,000 from 3.5 lakh in 2009 because a Dhangar had opposed her.

Fortunately for her, Modi did not campaign in Baramati in 2014. This time, however, the BJP is stepping up the heat. In November, Fadnavis said that his government would send a recommendation to the Centre to give Scheduled Tribe status to Dhangars. On March 4, the state government decided to extend all schemes of the Tribal Welfare Department to Dhangars till a decision is taken.

Sule also understands the importance of the issue. In January, she criticised the BJP in Parliament for not acting on its manifesto promise of giving Dhangars Scheduled Tribe status.

It remains to be seen if the BJP will somewhat soften its offensive in Baramati with Sharad Pawar out of the Lok Sabha contest.

Weakening authority?

The situation in the Nationalist Congress Party is changing with the next generation in the Pawar family taking centrestage.

Yes, the old order has to give way to the new. But is this happening at the cost of Sharad Pawar’s authority? It was the authority he wielded that made people believe that “Pawar saheb” would somehow manage things. He could manage the Shiv Sena, he could bring around the Congress leadership, he could persuade maverick regional chieftains to come around, he could deal with captains of industry and he could handle Prime Minister Modi. In the way the latest round has panned out, it is this authority that has taken a hit.

Any erosion in his authority at this stage will weaken the Nationalist Congress Party-Congress alliance. With the Congress bereft of a figure in Maharashtra who is able to lead from the front, Sharad Pawar had emerged as the kingpin of the alliance. Of course, the last word in the story has not been said.