NCP supremo Sharad Pawar is getting infamous for one peculiar thing. Nowadays, he meets his party leaders (either a MLA/ MP or district head) for mollifying them and retaining them in the party. But then those leaders leave the NCP within a few days of that meeting. Latest in this list is the ex NCP MP from Satara Chhatrapati Udayan Raje Bhonsle (who resigned from his seat within months of winning the LS 2019 election and joined the BJP). Two days ago it seemed that Sharad Pawar has succeeded in retaining Udayan raje in the NCP, but the cookie crumbled yesterday. It seems like Sharad Pawar has run out of options to retain leaders within the party. NCP has been out of power in the centre and the state for the last five years. Another five year in the wilderness of the opposition benches looks likely in the state as well (has already happened in the centre).
Though there is a long list of leaders who has left the NCP recently, but Udayan Raje leaving the party is symbolically important. Udayan raje is the direct descendant of Chhatrapati Shivaji maharaj and belongs to the Satara line of the greatest Maratha. He is a descendent of Shivaji maharaj’s elder son Chhatrapati Sambhaji. His nephew (and rival in NCP) Shivendra Raje Bhonsle had already joined the BJP last month. Interestingly Chhatrapati Sambhaji Raje who is also a descendant from the Kolhapur line of Shivaji maharaj (his younger son Chhatrapati Rajaram’s descendent) is already a nominated Rajya Sabha member and leans towards the BJP.
Normally in politics the horse follows the cart. Lot of Maratha caste leaders are shifting towards the BJP in the recent 6 months. This is the result of many Maratha voters shifting towards the BJP due to factors like the 12% Maratha reservation bill passed by the Fadnavis government, Modi government’s national security policies and accrual of benefits from the Modi government social welfare schemes. This has broken the back of the NCP which was esentially a Maratha caste party. Removing half the Maratha caste vote from the NCP would make it bankrupt in votebank politics.
Udayan raje is a maverick politician and always has been a tough individual to handle. He wins the Satara seat on his own strength as he is wildly popular in the Satara district, due to his ground level contact with the voters. He is known to attend marriage ceremonies in the remotest of villages. He won the 2014 Lok Sabha election by 3.66 lakh votes, when Supriya Sule struggled and won by a margin of just 70,000 votes. Udayan Raje put up posters of himself and Modi’s pictures around Satara with the heading “Abki baar Modi Sarkar”. But in LS 2019 election, even Udayan raje was shocked when his victory margin was reduced to 1.3 lakh votes. Probably he guessed that by the Lok Sabha 2024 election, his lineage and popularity might not help him if the Modi wave stays strong.
Two important leaders joined the BJP from the Congress and NCP this week. The first was ex Congress minister and ex MLA from Indapur (Baramati district) Harshavardhan Patil. His move toawrds the BJP was speculated even before the Lok Sabha election. But he missed the bus as the Pawar family managed to mollify him with the promise of leaving the Indapur seat for the Congress, even though the NCP candidate had defeated Patil in 2014. His support was crucial in winning the Lok Sabha contest in Baramati. Patil recently realised that the Pawar family was turning back on their word (calling card of Sharad Pawar) and not ready to handover the sitting Indapur seat over to the Congress. Hence he jumped ship and joined the BJP. Maharashtra BJP state president Chandrakant Dada Patil commented that had Harshavardhan Patil joined before the LS election, he would have been the MP from Baramati now.
A big catch for the BJP was the joining of Ganesh Naik and family along with 48 corporators of the Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC). Ganesh Naik had retained the NMMC against a BJP-Sena alliance in 2015. NMMC stood out as rest of the bigger urban municipal corporation were won by either the BJP or the Shiv Sena. Ganesh Naik’s son Sandeep Naik (MLA from Airoli assembly seat) and Sanjeev Naik (ex MP of Thane LS constituency) joined the BJP as well. Ganesh Naik had himself lost the 2014 assembly election from the Belapur assembly seat against BJP’s Mandatai Mhatre (his one time follower turned foe). Naik had left the Shiv Sena years ago and was a minister in the successive Cong-NCP governments. Naik is from the aagri community and has influence over Navi Mumbai and neighbouring areas of Thane districts, which have a huge aagri community vote. Naik also maintained good relationship will people from other communities who have settled in Navi Mumbai. This helped him to retain his hold over the region. Getting control over the NMMC is a huge gain for the BJP.
Meanwhile the Shiv Sena also gave some shocks of their own to the NCP. Two of the NCP MLAs from Konkan joined the Shiv Sena, furthering strengthening Sena’s hold over the Konkan region. Konkan electorally is a smaller area with just 15 assembly seats, but it is linked to the much bigger Mumbai-Thane urban belt which has 60 assembly seats. The migrant Konkanis form a big chunk of the voters in these areas (yours truly is a fifth generation migrant from Konkan to Mumbai). Currently BJP and Sena are fighting for hegemony in this belt. NCP MLA from Guhagar (Ratnagiri) Bhaskar Jadhav who was also a ex-NCP state president did a ghar wapasi to the Shiv Sena. Also NCP MLA from Shrivardhan (Raigad) Avadhut Tatkare joined the Shiv Sena. Avadhut is the nephew of the sitting NCP MP from Raigad Sunil Tatkare. This has increased the Sena’s strength in Konkan. Sharad Pawar had painstakingly built up the NCP in the Thane-Konkan region outside his traditional strength areas of Western Maharashtra and Marathwada over the last 20 years. All those efforts have been laid to waste in the last five years. The NCP has all but vanished from this area. NCP might not win more than 5 MLAs in the Mumbai-Thane-Konkan belt (75 assembly seats) in next month’s assembly election.
The Congress is also in a poor condition even though the exodus from the party appears smaller as compared to the NCP. Satyajeet Deshmukh of the Congress from Shirala (Sangli) is in line for leaving the Congress and joining the BJP. The Congress MLA from Sillod (Aurangabad district) Abdul Sattar had left the party before the Lok Sabha election and joined the Sena. Ex minister Kripashankar Singh also resigned from the Congress this week and is likely to join either the BJP or the Shiv Sena. Many of the senior leaders of the Congress like Manikrao Thakre, Anees Ahmed and Vilas Muttemwar are not ready to fight the assembly elections. NCP leader Yashwantrao Gadakh (Ahmednagar) has declared that he would contest as an independent, rather than on a NCP ticket. This could be another option for the Congress-NCP leaders who do not want to join the saffron parties.
A big reason is that in their opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Congress and NCP have developed an anti-India image. Their antics in opposing the abrogation of Article 370 have not been liked by the people, especially in a state like Maharashtra that has a huge nationalist sentiment (due to it’s historical struggle against the mughal rule). Many Congress and NCP leaders have realised that a Congress or NCP ticket is a liability in this current situation. With the huge amount of money that is spent on an election campaign, fighting on a party ticket that is perceived as anti-India is not an advisable course of action. This explains the party leaders leaving or not ready to fight elections. Add to that the threat of the Prakash Ambedkar led Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) which could hurt the Congress-NCP in a three corner contest.
One positive news for the Congress and NCP in the deluge of bad news is that the Prakash Ambedkar led VBA and the Asaduddin Owaisi led AIMIM have snapped their ties ahead of the assembly election. Ambedkar humiliated the AIMIM by offering them just 8 assembly seats. While this gives much needed respite to the Congress-NCP, but VBA and AIMIM could hurt them in a three cornered fights in some seats of Western Maharashtra, Marathwada, Vidarbha and the urban Mumbai-Thane belt.
Failure to perform decently in this assembly election could mean the de facto retirement of Sharad Pawar from active politics. He would be 84 years old when the LS 2024 comes around. He has a lot to be worried about now. Congress is a national party which could survive another five years out of power. But a regional party like the NCP would face an existential crisis in the next five years. The Supriya-Ajit succession battle is also to be settled. Sharad Pawar is in for more tough times in the coming years.