NCP in 2019: Pawar's party makes unexpected come-back

NCP in 2019: Pawar's party makes unexpected come-back

The Pawar-led party only retained its 2014 tally of five seats, four of which came from Maharashtra. The Congress was reduced to a single seat in the state. (PTI Photo)

It's never over until it is over. This would be the takeaway from year 2019 for the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party.

If anyone thought that a regional party with an aging patriarch and eroding base did not have much of a future in the face of BJP juggernaut, Lok Sabha polls proved them right, but Maharashtra Assembly elections was a different story.

The NCP continued its alliance with the Congress for the Lok Sabha, but both the parties fared badly.

The Pawar-led party only retained its 2014 tally of five seats, four of which came from Maharashtra. The Congress was reduced to a single seat in the state.

As Assembly elections drew near, the NCP was beset by desertions. The party, made up mainly of leaders who rule over individual pocket-boroughs across the sugar-belt of western Maharashtra, saw several of them jumping the ship.

Prominent among them was Satara MP Udayanraje Bhosale, a descendant of King Shivaji, who joined the ruling BJP.

"At that juncture it seemed it was a difficult task to retain even 41 seats won in 2014, our worst-ever performance," said an NCP leader, requesting anonymity.

But an aggressive campaign by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and BJP chief Amit Shah had an unintended effect, he said.

"Fadnavis' comment that Pawar's brand of break-and- make parties was now over stoked the fire in the belly of our workers," the leader said.

Weeks before the polls, the Enforcement Directorate named 78-year-old Pawar in a money-laundering case.

The wily politician swiftly turned the tables on the BJP by announcing that he would visit the ED office in Mumbai on his own and offer full cooperation in the probe.

He dropped the plan at the last minute at the request of city police who feared a law-and-order disruption.

But for the ruling party, the damage was already done, as the NCP chief had garnered sympathy.

"Pawar's decision to visit the ED was a brilliant move. It charged up our rank and file," said the NCP leader.

As the campaign began, Shah and Fadnavis trained their guns on Pawar, realising that he was the de-facto leader of the opposition camp.

Then came the defining moment of the campaign: Pawar delivering a fiery speech in Satara, where Lok Sabha by- election was being held simultaneously, in pouring rain. Pictures of a soaked-to-the-bone NCP chief went viral.

"His announcement of ED visit and the speech in Satara reversed the tide in our favour," the NCP leader said.

The party won 54 seats in the Assembly, 13 more than its 2014 tally, and its candidate, Pawar's old friend Sriniwas Patil, defeated Bhosale in the Lok Sabha by-election.

The BJP-Sena combine crossed the majority mark comfortably. But the simmering tension in the saffron alliance boiled over with the Sena seeking the chief minister's post.

In the weeks that followed the October 24 election results, the unthinkable unfolded in Maharashtra politics. The Sena burnt the bridges with the BJP and joined hands with the NCP and Congress, ignoring niggles of ideological incompatibility.

During the tortuous alliance talks between the three parties, Pawar's nephew and the party's legislature wing leader Ajit Pawar made a dramatic move to join hands with the BJP and was sworn in as deputy chief minister on November 23.

However, his uncle managed to keep the flock together, and the few NCP MLAs who were with Ajit returned one by one.

Realising that he had no support, Ajit resigned and returned to the party fold, paving the way for the Sena-NCP- Congress combine to come to power.

The challenge for the NCP chief in the new year would be to ensure that this unlikeliest of coalitions endures. 

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