It has only been a few days since the Election Commission announced the dates for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but things are already looking tumultuous for the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance in Maharashtra.
The alliance was decimated by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 elections – but till recently, seemed confident that it would be bouncing back in the state.
The feeling locally, however, is that the two parties are far from battle ready, while the BJP has begun its combative campaign after the Balakot airstrike.
Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar’s volte-face, with him announcing that he won’t contest from the Madha constituency in Solapur district after all, was a setback for the opposition combine. Seventy-eight-year-old Pawar has undoubtedly been the general of the Congress-NCP alliance in the key state, which has 48 Lok Sabha seats. This is second only to Uttar Pradesh, with 80 seats.
Leaders jumping ship
The alliance had not yet come to terms with this setback when Sujay Vikhe Patil, son of the leader of the opposition in the state assembly Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, joined the BJP just a day later. Radhakrishna is a senior Congress leader, and was seen as one of the chief ministerial candidates in the October 2018 assembly polls.
Now, the BJP is claiming that there are more such ‘tremors’ in the offing. There have been reports that former MP Ranjitsinh Mohite Patil of the NCP is meeting state BJP leaders. His father, Vijaysinh Mohite Patil, is an NCP leader and the sitting MP from Madha.
These developments highlight the BJP’s growing inroads in the sugar-rich belt of the state, as well as with the dominant Maratha community. The Marathas were so far largely supporting the NCP and the Congress, the two parties that shared power from 1999 to 2014.
The BJP had been falling behind in Maharashtrian politics, but it leapfrogged from the fourth position to the first during the 2014 Narendra Modi wave. Politics has undergone a sea change in the state since, with the BJP winning election after election at various levels. Some detractors have argued that the party hasn’t been using fair means.
The Vikhe Patil family is far from ordinary. Sujay’s great-grandfather, Vithalrao Vikhe Patil, was a legend in his lifetime. In 1945, he pioneered the first successful co-operative sugar factory in the country at Pravaranagar in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district. Interestingly, at its 1953 Nagpur session, the Indian National Congress resolved to push the future growth of the sugar industry mainly in the co-operative sector.
On the backs of sugar co-operatives, the Congress grew from strength to strength in Maharashtra, particularly in the western region. Party leaders used the co-operatives’ networks to spread their influence.
A lack of cohesion
Sujay joining the BJP was not a bolt from the blue. Both him and his father had been signalling for quite some time that the young neurologist would have no option but to turn saffron if he was not given a Lok Sabha nomination from the Ahmednagar seat. In the alliance’s allotment, this seat lies with the NCP.
The politics of one-upmanship between the two parties, and factions within the parties, finally took its toll. The Pawars and the Vikhe Patils have not been on the best of terms for decades. Sujay’s late grandfather, former Union minister Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, was known as an S.B. Chavan loyalist. Chavan was a known detractor of Pawar in the state. Sujay’s father, too, was in the Shiv Sena over two decades ago.
Incidentally, Sujay’s entry into the BJP, with much fanfare, came on a day when the Congress Working Committee was meeting in neighbouring Gujarat, the home turf of Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. Congress head Rahul Gandhi said at the meeting that no sacrifice is too great to defeat the BJP-RSS ideology of fascism, hatred, anger and divisiveness. The developments in Maharashtra may have underlined for him that the threat to his party is more serious than earlier thought.
Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who has emerged as a leader in his own right in the last five years, has claimed that the BJP-Sena alliance will bag 45 seats this time, three more than last time. In May 2014, the NCP had secured four seats, while the Congress won just two.
Only a few days ago, Madan Bhosale, a former MLA and son of party veteran and former Pradesh Congress Committee chief Prataprao Bhosale, joined the BJP.
Sharad Pawar’s sudden decision not to contest speaks more about the internal dynamics of the powerful Pawar clan, which was until now seen to be a close-knit unit. Reports say that his nephew and former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar forced him to give Parth Pawar the ticket from the Mawal constituency in Pune district, currently held by Shrirang Barane of the Shiv Sena. This left Pawar senior to leave the fray, saying that he does not want more people from the family to contest.
Rohit Pawar, 33, who was aspiring for a ticket on the Shirur seat, has urged Sharad to reconsider his decision not to contest. Rohit is the grandson of Sharad’s elder brother, Appasaheb Pawar.
There is talk that former chief minister Narayan Rane could be given the Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg seat by the opposition alliance. Rane, who has floated the Maharashtra Swabhimani Paksha, is furious with the BJP for joining hands with the Shiv Sena.
The Congress has been a divided house in the state for a while now, with PCC chief Ashok Chavan under attack from several leaders for his style of functioning. Chavan, a former chief minister, had to quit in the wake of the Adarsh housing scam. Five years ago, he was elected from his home turf, Nanded in the Marathwada region. The other winning candidate from the party was Rajeev Satav, who is now the All India Congress Committee in charge of Gujarat.
All in all, Congress and NCP could be going down a slippery slope. If the two parties fail to get their houses in order and bring smaller parties on board, the next few months are going to be tough. Prakash Ambedkar is threatening to create fresh trouble by contesting alone.
In the wake of the desertions haunting the Congress and NCP, social media is agog with posts appealing to leaders of opposition parties to look after their cadre ahead of the polls.
Sunil Gatade is a Delhi-based journalist.