Ahead of the assembly polls which are likely to be held in October, Maharashtra’s political arena is seeing an unusual phenomenon with hordes of leaders from Sharad Pawar lead Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Indian National Congress (INC) joining the saffron alliance of Bhartiya Janata Party and Shiv Sena (BJP-SS ).
The first instance of a major switchover was witnessed ahead of the 2019 Lokshabha Elections with stalwart Congressman and its Leader of Opposition (LoP)in Maharashtra Assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil resigning from his post. He officially joined BJP in June 2019 only after his son Sujay went on to register his maiden Lokshabha victory from Ahmednagar on a BJP ticket. Radhakrishna Vikhe, soon after his induction was awarded a cabinet berth in Maharashtra Government. Another Congress veteran a 7 term MLA, Kalidas Kolambkar, (Wadala, Mumbai) has officially joined BJP on the last day of July 2019.
But it’s the NCP that has been the most affected by the desertion of its senior leaders. Just before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, NCP lost one of its strongest leaders, former Deputy CM VijaySinh Mohite Patil along with his son RanjitSinh in March 2019. In a recent major setback, NCP’s poster boy & Mumbai Unit Chief, former minister Sachin Ahir joined hands with BJPs’ ally Shivsena on July 25.
Almost 6 days later, three-star NCP MLAs Sandeep Naik (Airoli, Navi Mumbai), Vaibhav Pichad (Akole, Ahmednagar) and Shivendra Raje Bhosale (Javali, Satara) along with firebrand Women’s Wing Chief Chitra Wagh joined BJP on July 31. This sudden exodus of leaders from NCP is a huge jolt for the party and it is possibly staring at a collapse if the same trend continues in the days to come.
A natural question would arise in the minds of the readers that who are these leaders who are joining the saffron alliance recently? Why is their induction so important to Maharashtra politics?
Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil
The Vikhe Patils, hailing from Ahmednagar district, are considered a powerful name in Maharashtra’s political history. Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil is the son of veteran Congress leader Late Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, a sugar baron, who had been awarded the prestigious Padma Bhushan for his outstanding work in the field of Social Work. Late Balasaheb, a 7 term Member of Parliament served as former Union Minister of State (Finance) and Union Cabinet Minister (Heavy Industries) while he was briefly with Shivsena between 1996-1999. Most importantly in his entire political career, he was one of the bitter rivals of NCP chief Sharad Pawar. The political rivalry continued to the second generation with Balasaheb’s son Radhakrishna Vikhe & Sharad Pawar’s nephew former Dy CM of Maharashtra, Ajit Pawar often crossed swords with each other even though their respective parties (INC-NCP) were in a power-sharing alliance between 1999-2014.
Inducting the Vikhe Patil father-son duo in the BJP fold will provide the much-needed boost to BJP to counter the influence of Sharad Pawar’s Maratha Politics in western Maharashtra. BJP was in a search of a strong Maratha face in the region and who else better than Vikhe- Patils. It would be pertinent to mention here that it was due to the old fault lines between the two powerful families that NCP supremo Sharad Pawar just ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections refused to let go NCP’s traditional Ahmednagar Lok Sabha seat to Sujay while he was still in Congress. And the rest is now history. The very same Vikhe Patil family is now playing an important role as a mediator to pull many Congress/ NCP stalwarts in BJP fold.
Sandeep Naik is the son of heavyweight NCP leader Ganesh Naik who is considered to have a strong grip over the region of Navi Mumbai. Ganesh Naik belongs to the locally powerful Agri (Salt Farmers/ Fisherman) Community, joined NCP in 1999 after leaving Shiv Sena. A close aid of Sharad Pawar, Ganesh Naik in his son’s footsteps is believed to join BJP soon with all 52 NCP corporators from Navi Mumbai. This father-son duo will further strengthen BJP’s foothold and almost wipe out NCP’s presence in the this rapidly urbanizing satellite town of Mumbai.
Vaibhav Pichad, son of another veteran NCP leader Madhukar Pichad was one of the founding members of NCP in 1999. A strong tribal leader from Akole constituency of Ahmednagar district, Pichad has served as the Maharashtra Chief of NCP and was considered a close confidante of Sharad Pawar. The Pichads will now provide BJP inroads to win hearts of tribal community in Maharashtra.
Shivendra Raje Bhosale
Shivendra Raje Bhosale is a direct descendant of the great Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj from Satara Dynasty. An extremely popular leader amongst the youth of Western Maharashtra, Shivendra Raje is also an estranged cousin of NCP MP Udayanraje Bhosale. On July 28 in a one-on-one meeting, Shivendra Raje was assured by Sharad Pawar to personally mediate in the feud between the two warring cousins provided he doesn’t desert the party. However, Shivendra Raje’s exit has added insult to the Pawar Senior’s injury. Shivaji Maharaj’s other descendant from Kolhapur Dynasty, Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj is already a BJP MP from the Upper House.
Devendra Fadnavis – The Mastermind
What we see today are the results of a long-term strategy formulated and executed to precision by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Anyone who understands Maharashtra’s politics well, knows well that it largely revolves around the Cooperative Institutions which includes banks, credit societies, sugar factories, cooperative textile mills, Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs), milk collection & processing units etc. directly or indirectly touching almost half of Maharashtra’s population.
Currently, Maharashtra State has 31 District Cooperative Central (DCC) Banks, 306 APMCs, more than 20,000 Primary Agricultural Credit Societies (PACS), 507 Primary Urban cooperative and around 125 operational Sugar Mills running on Cooperative basis. Cooperative Sector politics has played a pivotal role in encouraging rural political participation and as a launchpad for aspiring politicians. Voting is conducted to choose a management committee from the registered member (mostly farmers) of a Cooperative Unit.
Most of the leaders from Congress & NCP leaders including Sharad Pawar himself have started their political careers from either of the Cooperative Sector units mentioned earlier. Most of these cooperative institutions have been traditionally dominated by Congress and NCP leaders. As these leaders had absolute control over the finances of these cooperatives, they could manipulate the management of these institutes and payments to the members. This led to rampant corruption and bankruptcy of many such institutions. Fadnavis understands this power base of Congress & NCP very well and was determined to shatter the very root of it.
In 2016 Devendra Fadnavis Govt introduced many reforms in the cooperative sector through amendments to APMC Act (1963) aimed at making the operation and management of such units transparent such as the appointment of an independent expert to the directors’ board, barring tainted directors of such institutes for election for 2 terms etc. This move largely affected the existing board of directors who were accused of irregularities from contesting elections for at least 10 years.
This came as a huge blow to NCP & Congress leaders who were on board for most of such co-op institutions. In another progressive move, Fadnavis Govt deregulated trading of fruits & vegetables enabling the farmer to sell his produce anywhere in the open market, which earlier was mandatory to be sold only to a licensed APMC trader, who are to a large extent affiliated to the Congress / NCP in western Maharashtra. Naturally, these were very well thought moves by Devendra Fadnavis directly affecting the political power base of Congress & NCP.
Maharashtra’s agrarian economy
In an agrarian economy like that of Maharashtra, these reforms were well received in the farmer community. His government’s flagship initiative aimed at water conservation in drought-prone regions ‘Jalyukta Shivar Abhiyaan’ was a huge success and the rural masses were now convinced that Fadnavis Govt meant the wellbeing of farmers. This was in stark contrast with the earlier Cong-NCP government’s poor deliverance on this issue and in fact NCP lead Irrigation Ministry under Ajit Pawar was accused of huge financial irregularities to the tune of Rs 70,000 crore famously known as the ‘Irrigation Scam of Maharashtra’.
Riding on credibility
Fadnavis after successfully delivering Jal Yukta Abhiyaan was now a hero with a pan Maharashtra appeal. Riding on the credibility of Devendra Fadnavis in 2017, BJP went on to win almost 50 %, that is, 1457 out of total 3131 Gram-panchayats all over Maharashtra. These numbers were astonishing given the fact that NCP which projects itself as the crusader of the rural masses won only 194 and Congress winning 301 places. To rub salt in the wound, in 2018 Municipal Elections Fadnavis struck hard at Ajit Pawar’s powerful bastion winning the Pune City & its satellite town Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal elections thereby sending a clear signal to Maharashtra that he had finally arrived. It was now amply clear that Devendra Fadnavis is a force to reckon and is here to rule Maharashtra for a long time.
Devendra Fadnavis has another big-ticket accomplishment to his credit. While the entire country was witnessing the silent march of lakhs of Marathas, the powerful and politically dominant community demanding reservation in education and employment. An extremely sensitive political issue, Fadnavis handled it with the maturity of a statesman, resulting in ensuring 13% reservation for Marathas which stood the scrutiny of Supreme Court. This was huge and Fadnavis won hearts of millions of Marathas which form roughly 32 % of Maharashtra’s population. He could achieve a feat which even the self-declared Maratha leaders like Sharad Pawar could not achieve in his entire political career. Fadnavis was now no more a leader of Brahmins & Baniyas.
It was not surprising that many stalwarts of NCP and Congress, sensing the end of the road, started sending feelers to BJP with an intention to join the saffron fold just ahead of 2019 General Elections. While a few of them were still apprehensive of Narendra Modi’s victory, they held their cards tight. With Modi winning his second term with an unprecedented majority, the floodgates are now opening with most of the seniors from NCP/ Congress leaders willing to jump the ship and this trend will possibly continue till the Assembly Elections.
The Road Ahead
While the influx of bankable leaders from Congress/ NCP is good to win elections, it has its flip side too. While these imported leaders are mass influencers sure to win votes, the loyal party leaders and cadre are disappointed. Though BJP is a cadre-based party and its members are ideologically committed, there is a murmur amongst its leaders and party workers disliking the party’s move to induct outsiders. Critics are poking holes at the BJP’s claim of being a ‘party with a difference’ as it is now seen inducting leaders from Congress/ NCP whom they were previously accusing of being corrupt. The optics certainly doesn’t seem right to many ordinary party supporters too.
Nonetheless, one thing that is crystal clear is that Devendra Fadnavis is now an undisputed mass leader having a pan Maharashtra outreach and it is due to his charisma that BJP is performing exceedingly well in recent elections of all formats. It was his long strategy which he executed with surgical precision, that has silently cemented BJP’s position in Maharashtra politics pushing Congress/ NCP almost to the brink of collapse. The 2019 Maharashtra Assembly Elections now looks like a mere formality as the BJP-SS alliance is strongly predicted to come back to power with a thumping majority. What remains to be seen is that amidst all this power tussle and a victory on the horizon, how well the grand old alliance between Bhartiya Janata Party & Shiv Sena will hold.