Ajit Pawar resigns as Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister; political crisis within and outside NCP

Mumbai: Sharad Pawar has categorically said his Nationalist Congress Party will not end its partnership with the Congress in Maharashtra following his nephew and the state’s Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar resigning this evening over allegations of an irrigation scam. But 19 other NCP ministers in the coalition state government have sent resignation letters too, amid speculation that a Sharad Pawar versus Ajit Pawar, uncle versus nephew, internal power struggle is playing out alongside the less secret one between the ruling coalition partners, the NCP and Congress.

NCP leaders, including Praful Patel, have stoutly denied this; but unlike, Mr Ajit Pawar, the rest of the ministers sent their letters only to the NCP’s Maharashtra state president, Madhukar Pichad, suggesting pressure tactics. The ministers resigned minutes after Sharad Pawar said there would be no more resignations after his nephew’s. An NCP leader Majeed Menon hastened to explain, “The resignation is a token to express solidarity with the tallest leader of the party in the state  Ajit Pawar who is being victimized. There is absolutely no defiance, whatever Mr Sharad Pawar has decided Maharashtra ministers will follow.”

Earlier in the evening, Mr Ajit Pawar announced his resignation saying. “I am just an MLA now. I won’t accept any ministry or post till I am cleared of all allegations… I have not done this, why should I suffer the allegations? But if I did not resign, people will think I am guilty and did not want to give up my political posts,” he said. His uncle stressed that his party supported what he called his nephew’s independent decision, but also sought to make clear that this will not affect ties with the Congress. He told NDTV no one else will be “permitted” to resign.

The resignation of the ministers came soon after. Mr Pawar’s second in command, Praful Patel, rubbished all talk about a rift between the Pawars saying, “Ajit Pawar’s decision is not a drama. The decision is well thought out and the party supports him completely.”

In a brief statement in Mumbai, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said, “I have received a letter of resignation from Mr Ajit Pawar. He has also suggested some alternative arrangements about the two portfolios he held – finance and energy. After speaking to leaders of both parties, I will take a final decision.”

While the NCP says  Mr Ajit Pawar’s was a well thought out decision it endorsed, sources close to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan of the Congress said he was taken aback at the “unexpected” resignation. They said the Maharashtra Chief Minister had held discussions over one and a half hours with Sharad Pawar in Delhi yesterday, where the latter reportedly expressed worry about an inquiry into the alleged irrigation scam. Mr Chavan who had recently announced a white paper on irrigation much to the NCP’s chagrin, conveyed to Mr Pawar that in the age of RTI, facts could not be hidden, the sources said.

Mr Pawar, who said he was quitting both as Deputy CM and the state’s Power Minister, said today, “I have no objection to a white paper, I have sent my resignation… It is my own decision there should be no questions on a probe, no questions on exerting pressure.”

A senior NCP leader said Mr Pawar had put in his papers because the NCP was “tired of the whisper campaign, mainly by friends.” He did not name anyone but was clearly indicating Mr Chavan. The leader confirmed that Mr Chavan expressed shock and said he would not accept the resignation. Mr Pawar’s resignation has since been accepted.

The allegations Ajit Pawar referred to are said to be at the core of tension between the two partners recently. Mr Chavan declared in July this year that his government would present a ‘white paper’ on what the state had spent on irrigation in the last 10 years; this after the Opposition alleged that Maharashtra spent over 70,000 crores in that period but added only 0.1 per cent to the area under irrigation. Mr Pawar was the state’s water resources minister between 1999 and 2009.

The white paper on irrigation is slated to be tabled in the next session of the Maharashtra Assembly. A report of the state auditor or CAG is also expected in a few months.

The Opposition has also demanded a CBI inquiry into the alleged scam. The accusations Mr Pawar faces include granting about 32 contracts within three months, worth Rs. 13,500 crores, in the state’s Vidarbha region at high rates. The Opposition alleges that a change in tender processes meant that all tenders of over a crore required his signature. It has also been alleged that Mr Pawar overruled officials who tried to stop this. The Vidarbha region has come to be known for desperate and impoverished, debt-ridden farmers committing suicide. A failed monsoon this year has highlighted the problem of faulty canals that do not work throughout the region.

The BJP, in a swift reaction has said, “He should stick to his resignation. This should not be a part of pressure politics. He should face the charges and cooperate with the inquiry. The irrigation scam is a big scam. The country has a right to know where the money went.”

It is not the BJP that bothers the NCP. It is the Maharashtra Chief Minister, who has been involved in a zealous clean-up drive that has left him distinctly unpopular with the partner. Mr Chavan had in July asked for a complete statement of accounts on irrigation for the last decade. The NCP had then sought that Ajit Pawar’s term to be exempt from the inquiry.

Matters came to a head in July just after the Presidential elections, when the NCP threatened to break off ties with the Congress at the Centre – ostensibly party leaders Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel were upset that the party as a UPA ally was not consulted on important decisions. But it was clear that the strained relationship in Maharashtra was central to the NCP’s angst.

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