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If it’s a nephew, never say ‘phew!’

Mumbai, Sept. 29: NCP chief Sharad Pawar may claim that the latest political kerfuffle in Maharashtra wasn’t a “Pawar vs Pawar” fight, but many political analysts believe nephew Ajit Pawar has adroitly outmanoeuvred his uncle in this round of a succession battle.

With his dramatic resignation as deputy chief minister on Tuesday, they argue, Ajit has outpaced Supriya Sule, Pawar’s daughter and apparently his favoured heir, in the race to be future NCP leader, at least in the eyes of party workers.

Ajit, 53, took the moral high ground and quit in the face of corruption allegations, setting off a political crisis and grabbing headlines in the national media.

He showed off his support by having 19 other ministers follow suit, while 12 NCP-backed Independents threatened to withdraw support to the Congress-NCP government if Ajit wasn’t part of it.

Left with little choice, Pawar Sr accepted the resignation yesterday, while rejecting those by the other ministers. Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan forwarded Ajit’s resignation to the governor this morning and allotted his portfolios of energy, planning and finance to two NCP members he had recommended in his quit letter.

“By resigning, Ajit put Pawar on the defensive. His resignation has established a new leader,” said political analyst Kumar Ketkar, who edits the Divya Marathi newspaper.

“Unlike Bal Thackeray, Pawar was not officially anointing his successor and the question was hanging in the air for too long. Ajit has now shown that the party has not only a new, dynamic leader but a future.”

Although the family denies any race between Ajit and Supriya, an MP, Pawar had recently opened a women’s youth wing, the Rashtrawadi Yuvati Congress, and put his daughter in charge.

At a party meeting a month and a half ago, Pawar had said the NCP should make women its core political base. Since then, Supriya has addressed more than 18 Rashtrawadi Yuvati Congress conventions across the state.

“Ajit had never counted Supriya as a potential rival. He clearly has the majority of party MLAs supporting him, and his resignation has set him straight on course for the 2014 Assembly elections, when he would like to be chief minister,” Ketkar said.

He added that the Congress faced a leadership vacuum following Vilasrao Deshmukh’s death.

Ajit, active in sugar politics since 1982, became Congress MP from Baramati in 1991 but vacated the seat a few months later for Pawar, who was inducted into P.V. Narasimha Rao’s cabinet at the Centre.

Later that year, Ajit got elected as Baramati MLA and served as a junior minister in the state till 1995, when the Sena-BJP came to power. Soon, Pawar launched the NCP, which formed a government in Maharashtra in alliance with the Congress in 1999. Ajit became a state cabinet minister.

Supriya married in 1992 and lived in California and Singapore for a while before returning to Mumbai. She became Rajya Sabha MP in 2004 and the Lok Sabha MP from Baramati in 2009.

The state’s other big political family, the Thackerays, settled their succession question in 2002 when Bal Thackeray chose son Uddhav over the far more politically active nephew, Raj. Sidelined in the party thereafter, an upset Raj walked out three years later and formed the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS).

Although the mild-mannered Uddhav has led the Shiv Sena to power in the civic polls, many party workers feel the Sena has mellowed since the days of Bal Thackeray’s leadership. By forming the more aggressive MNS, Raj appears to be giving his uncle a constant reminder about who his true political heir is.

If Balasaheb’s Sena attacked south Indian migrants, Raj’s party targeted those from north India. Like the Sena, the MNS has set up shakhas in every ward and formed trade unions in the industrial, aviation, hospitality, transport and film sectors. Raj’s fiery speeches often remind old-timers of his uncle.

Although the MNS failed to upstage the Sena in the February civic polls, it captured the parent party’s traditional stronghold of Dadar-Shivaji Park, where the Sena Bhavan is located, as it had done in the 2009 Assembly polls too.

Another nephew has cornered his uncle in arid Marathawada. Although little known in the state till his rebellion in December 2011, Dhananjay Munde gave nightmares to uncle Gopinath by staking claim to his home turf.

Dhananjay and his father Pandit Anna Munde, the BJP leader’s elder brother, had been nurturing Gopinath’s parliamentary constituency of Beed for years. But Dhananjay felt snubbed when Gopinath got his daughter Pankaja elected MLA from Parli, Beed, in 2009.

Dhananjay challenged his uncle’s writ during the Parli civic polls, backing an Independent who defeated the Gopinath-nominated official BJP candidate. Anna joined the NCP.

Gopinath exacted sweet revenge by ensuring Anna’s defeat in the Beed zilla parishad polls in February. But the NCP captured 29 of the 50 seats against the BJP’s 20 and came to power in the traditional Sena-BJP bastion.