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A man Friday emerges out of his master’s shadow

Praful Patel was NCP supremo Sharad Pawar’s closest aide; now, he has made his political career’s boldest move by aligning with rebel Ajit Pawar.
Last Updated : 09 July 2023, 01:31 IST

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When Praful Patel walked into the Raj Bhavan on July 2 to witness the swearing-in of Ajit Pawar as the new Maharashtra deputy chief minister after he rebelled against his uncle Sharad Pawar, there was all-round disbelief.

Almost no one anticipated that the 66-year-old would join the ranks of mutineers.

Later, as the drama played out, as observers and rivals scratched their heads over what had happened, Patel was asked about the Patna Opposition meeting, where he had been present along with Pawar and Supriya Sule.

“I was laughing,” the soft-spoken Patel said and belittled the idea of a united Opposition.

That Patel — who measures his words carefully — was chuckling inwardly at the meeting would have been like a knife to Pawar’s heart.

Since the NCP’s inception 25 years ago, Patel had been shadowing Pawar and been his crisis manager. Trust was the bedrock of their relationship, so much so that Patel would know the NCP chief’s next move.

A senior NCP leader aligned with Pawar told DH that Patel’s defection was unexpected and it was a personal blow to the Maratha strongman.

“Praful is a good networker who understood how Delhi worked. While securing his own interests, Praful always protected Pawar’s interests, too. Pawar will miss his top manager. None, not even Supriya, can fill those shoes,” he said.

The rise

A billionaire industrialist, sports administrator and former Union minister, Patel is suave and sophisticated; someone who is at ease in expensive suits as he is in a white kurta-pyjama.

Patel entered politics very young and rose to become the president of Gondia Municipal Council in Maharashtra in 1985 at the age of 28.

Six years later, he contested the Lok Sabha election from the Bhandara-Gondiya seat and became an MP at 34. In 2014, he lost the seat to then-BJP leader Nana Patole, who is now with the Congress, but Pawar came to his aid and the NCP sent him to the Rajya Sabha in 2000, 2006, 2016 and 2022.

Patel emulated his father Manoharbhai Patel, a Gujarati who settled in Maharashtra, in both politics and business.

Manoharbhai’s rise is a rags-to-riches story. Initially, he was into loading and unloading trucks and selling cycles, but eventually rose to become a Congress MLA and laid the foundation for the Ceejay Group, which his enterprising son would develop into an industrial behemoth.

Virtually uneducated, (he studied till Class IV), Manoharbhai knew the importance of education, but the family hit a trough of bad luck with his death. Patel was just 13 then.

Though Patel wanted to go to Harvard, he had to settle for a degree in Commerce. But he had his father’s gifts, as his business and political acumen would later take him places.

The Ceejay Group started as a tobacco trading company and is known for its beedi brands. It later diversified into construction, real estate, financial services and pharmaceuticals over a period of time and Patel had a hand in this.

Patel would soon attract the attention of Pawar, who took him under his wing and constantly tried to promote his disciple.

For example, in 2004, when the UPA government was formed, Pawar pushed Patel’s case and the latter ended up being the Civil Aviation Minister.

Patel’s stint was eventful: more private airlines emerged and a solid foundation for the privatisation of the civil aviation sector was laid.

But the success brought trouble and scrutiny.

The CBI filed multiple FIRs on the Air India-Indian Airlines merger and fleet acquisition in 2018. Though he was not named, the FIRs mentioned his alleged role. The CBI FIRs spoke about Air India giving up profit-making routes and timings to private players without reciprocal benefits among other things, putting the spotlight again on the politician-corporate nexus.

Critics claim that these decisions landed the former national carrier in a financial mess.

Patel’s real estate business brought him under the scanner of the ED, while his role as a football administrator had its share of controversies.

Important player

Despite all this, he remained an important player in the NCP and knew his limits, unlike Ajit. A superb networker, Patel had the knack to place himself close to the source of power, from where he could dictate the course of action.

In the good old days of the NCP, Pawar would delegate tricky negotiations to his younger colleague. Patel, on his part, became a bridge for many. His actions were considered to have Pawar’s sanction; even if he disagreed or disliked a move, Pawar never contradicted
Patel.

That is one reason why Pawar chose him to be the party’s Working President along with his daughter, Supriya.

So, what does the future hold for Patel, now that he has walked away from his mentor and guru, Pawar? Will he continue to have his sway like in the past? Or has he gone too far by siding with Ajit?

Patel was a master at manoeuvring through the byzantine intrigue of Delhi politics. Only time will tell whether Patel will emerge unscathed from the NCP’s crisis.

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Published 08 July 2023, 18:58 IST

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