At the review meeting held by NCP chief Ajit Pawar on Thursday to discuss the party’s Lok Sabha poll performance, winning just one seat, five of his 41 MLAs were absent. Narhari Zirwal is said to be abroad, and four reported to be unwell. Ajit, on his part, skipped the meeting in Delhi on Wednesday of NDA partners, where they affirmed faith in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership.

The developments are set to add to the speculation around the fate – and plans – of the Ajit Pawar-led NCP, after Sharad Pawar again stole a march over his nephew by leading his party to eight seats out of the 10 it contested. Ajit’s NCP, on the other hand, contested four seats and won only Raigad. Among the constituencies it lost was Baramati, where Ajit’s wife Sunetra was pitted against Sharad Pawar’s daughter and sitting MP Supriya Sule.

Given Ajit’s flip-flops concerning Sharad Pawar earlier – including several near-rebellions – the foremost chatter is that the nephew may be looking to stage another return. Alternatively, a substantial number of his MLAs may be looking to do so.

What is clear is that Ajit is left with few bargaining chips. In the Mahayuti vs Maha Vikas Aghadi contest involving six big parties in Maharashtra, Ajit’s NCP fared the worst – winning 1 seat and 3.6% votes.

While it contested the least number of constituencies compared to the others, the gap between it and Sharad Pawar’s NCP that contested 10 seats is a glaring 7%. Plus, it will be weighing on his MLAs that, going by the Lok Sabha results, they might end up on the losing side in the Assembly polls at the end of this year.

Festive offer

The failure in Baramati – where the BJP too had thrown in its all – will also lower Ajit’s stock with the national party. Sources said a win may have prompted the BJP to offer the next chief ministership to Ajit, a Maratha face.

In his bid to win the Baramati seat, a Pawar fiefdom long nurtured by Ajit on the family’s behalf, Ajit also left no stone unturned, even burying his long-time rivalries with leaders of other parties. He pressed on even after his own brother and other members of the extended Pawar family sided with Sule.

Sunetra’s defeat, however, was comprehensive, with Sule winning five of the six Assembly constituencies under Baramati. This included the Baramati Assembly seat, won by Ajit in 2019 by 1.65 lakh votes, where Sunetra was behind by over 45,000 votes.

Underlining the scale of Ajit’s personal defeat, Ankush Kakade, a leader of the NCP (Sharadchandra Pawar) and a long-time associate of Sharad Pawar, said: ‘Voters did not approve of him ditching Pawar saheb and joining hands with the BJP. They did not like how Ajit targeted Pawar saheb at rallies.”

Kakade even admitted that had the NCP been united, Sule may have struggled to win. “But because Ajit went around badmouthing Sharad Pawar, Baramati took it to heart and voted for Sule.”

Those in the Ajit camp, however, claim a silver lining in Fadnavis’s offer to resign owing “moral responsibility” for the poor showing of their Mahayuti coalition, with the BJP winning only nine seats in Maharashtra, down from 23 in 2019. Many believe the The offer was made to pave the way for the BJP to move Fadnavis to Delhi in a senior position – a plan long in the works.

Amit Gorkhe, a BJP leader seen as close to Fadnavis, said his offer had “stumped” his followers. “The Deputy Chief Minister is not one to run away. He has faced many storms in his life.”

If Fadnavis is removed from the Maharashtra picture, Ajit’s aides say, it will create an opening for the latter to become the Chief Minister of the Mahayuti government, replacing Eknath Shinde. The Shinde-led Shiv Sena also did not fare as well as it hoped in the Lok Sabha polls, winning seven seats, two less than the count of the Uddhav Thackeray-led Sena.

While Shinde too is a Maratha, his reach is limited to the Thane-Kalyan area, unlike Ajit’s. “Shinde does not have the charisma to lead the Mahayuti. Only Ajit Pawar can help the coalition win in the Assembly elections,” said an NCP leader.

But with one seat in his kitty, the chances of Ajit being picked as CM or CM face seem highly unlikely.

NCP spokesperson Umesh Patil told The Indian Express that too much should not be read into Ajit skipping the NDA meeting – that came just a day ahead of the NCP’s review meeting – with Ajit deputing Praful Patel and Sunil Tatkare to attend in his place.

Patil also said it was wrong to blame Ajit for the poor showing of the NCP, given that the entire Mahayuti did not do well. “The coalition suffered and the reasons are manifold – the Maratha agitation, farmers’ protests, the late distribution of tickets.”

Interestingly, he added: “We also could not convince voters as to why we joined hands with the BJP.”