Nagpur, Maharashtra: As Eknath Khadse, the senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader who once mentored Devendra Fadnavis, joins the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), top leaders of the Sharad Pawar-led outfit said that more prominent names are expected to jump ship soon.
Maharashtra NCP chief Jayant Patil confirmed to HuffPost India that he is in touch with 4-6 current BJP legislators who want to leave the right-wing party, and claimed that many former legislators are also considering this.
“For the past few months, as the NCP Maharashtra chief, I had been trying to pursue Khadse to come to us and he was just not willing. He was of the opinion that he has a future in his own party. But he always used to say that he trusts Pawar’s leadership and that he respects him. We gave him enough time to garner support in his party but that did not happen. Then, on his own, he said that it’s time to switch. There are many other people who have been cultivated by Khadse in Maharashtra BJP (who could join NCP) and there are people (from BJP) who are talking to me independently and some independents and people from Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi are also in discussion with us,” Patil told HuffPost India in an exclusive interview.
Even before Khadse announced his resignation on Wednesday, Patil had said in a press conference that the senior leader would be joining the NCP on Friday.
Khadse’s move, Patil told HuffPost India, is the outcome of a massive online campaign held over the past few months involving feedback from lakhs of NCP workers. The campaign, called ‘Rashtrawadi Abhipray’, was launched by Patil on June 10 after the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown made it difficult to meet party workers in person.
As part of this, NCP workers were asked a number of questions, including about the party’s strengths and weaknesses, and whether the local leadership was accessible. HuffPost India has seen a copy of the questionnaire.
Patil, however, was quick to add that the NCP’s attempt is different from the BJP’s so-called ‘Operation Lotus’ which refers to the poaching of opposition MLAs, sometimes leading to the collapse of sitting governments.
Patil also denied that BJP leader Pankaja Munde, who like Khadse has made her displeasure with Fadnavis public, will be joining the party. Another NCP leader said that Munde is unlikely to join the party due to the presence of her cousin Dhananjay Munde.
HuffPost India had reported earlier this week about how Khadse’s resignation had exposed the Bahujan vs Brahmin tussle within the BJP. Many party leaders have been unhappy with former CM Fadnavis’s tight control over the party, and some blame him for snapping off ties with the Shiv Sena. Bahujan leaders such as Khadse and Munde were sidelined in the party, while space was made for Fadnavis’s loyalists.
Even senior BJP leaders publicly admitted that Khadse had been unhappy for some time but that his decision to join NCP came as a shock.
Just a year earlier, ahead of the state assembly election, Fadnavis had convinced many top NCP leaders to defect to his party. The defection of Padmasinh Patil, in particular, had caused considerable embarrassment for Sharad Pawar. Patil’s sister Sunetra is married to Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar, currently the deputy CM of Maharashtra.
But now the BJP seems to be on the backfoot in the state—for one, it is sitting in the opposition despite winning the most number of seats in the assembly election; second, its prediction that the Maha Vikas Aghadi government led by Uddhav Thackeray would collapse under its own contradictions hasn’t come true until now.
The attempt by the Pawar-led NCP—which is still seen as a ‘Maratha’ party—to broaden its base at the expense of the BJP could provide a playbook to other regional parties who feel suffocated by the massive right-wing party. While the BJP, controlled tightly by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah at the centre, is still seen as impenetrable, the chinks exposed in a massive state like Maharashtra will offer hope to opposition leaders.
What is the ‘Rashtrawadi Abhipray’ programme?
As a part of the feedback campaign, online questionnaires were sent to NCP workers all over the state. Apart from basic information, the questionnaire also asked the participants about the position of NCP in their respective districts; in which assembly segments the party is stronger in the district and why; in which assembly segments the party is weak and why; which assembly segment the NCP could have won in the last election; whether the party leadership in the district was accessible to ground-level workers; and what kinds of problems members had to face while working for the party in their respective areas.
The questionnaire also asked the NCP workers about the important issues in their respective constituencies as well as what they thought should be done to strengthen the party in their districts.
Patil said more than 8 lakh NCP workers submitted their feedback by July. Patil and his team then analysed the data to understand the actual condition of the party in various parts of the state.
“Our 18 frontal organisations worked on this campaign. The grassroot workers were able to openly express their views about the local and district leadership through this campaign. Based on that, we realised where we are weak, where we are strong, what are the opinions of our local workers. Based on that, this working ( approaching BJP leaders) accelerated,” said Patil, a six-term MLA from Sangli district who is currently the water resources department minister in Thackeray’s cabinet.
He added that the exercise is being conducted in a way that couldn’t “disturb” the NCP’s alliance partners, Congress and Shiv Sena.
Is it similar to BJP’s ‘Operation Lotus’?
Patil said he and his team have adopted a more holistic and analytical approach instead of mass-poaching of opposition leaders. There is no “power game”, he claimed, but that NCP and Pawar believe that associations built out of “love and affection” are much stronger.
“If I threaten you, you are bound to remain in my party only as long as I am in power. We don’t want temporary arrangements. We want to grow our party for the long term. We don’t want to bring them under pressure or compromise. We have never indulged in such practices before and we will never do it in the future also. We don’t want a temporary swelling in our party,” Patil said when asked about the difference between his party’s ongoing campaign and BJP’s Operation Lotus.
BJP and other party leaders are being identified based on the data collected by the Rashtrawadi Abhipray campaign, after which the process to bring them into the NCP begins, especially in the areas where the party is weak.
Patil said that NCP doesn’t want to target disgruntled BJP leaders and risk alienating its own members.
“We don’t want to take everybody or without taking our local party leadership into confidence. Even in Khadse’s case, we had a lot of consultations with local district leadership. They had some differences (with Khadse) because they had contested elections (against him) and we resolved those issues amicably. Before we allow (BJP leaders to switch to NCP) in any other district or constituency, we take our local units into confidence so that they work together in the future,” said Patil.
An NCP leader told HuffPost India on the condition of anonymity that Pankaja Munde may not join the party.
“There are already two prominent leaders in NCP from the Vanjari community to which Pankaja belongs and also Dhananjay will clearly not be happy with her induction, so chances of her joining NCP are bleak,” this person said.
Pankaja and cousin Dhananjay have clashed publicly in the past and ran high-voltage campaigns against each other. In 2014, Pankaja had defeated Dhananjay from the Parli assembly segment in Beed but lost to him in 2019.
Are Congress and Shiv Sena on board?
A close aide of Patil told HuffPost India that the ongoing campaign of the NCP is likely to emerge as a pan-Maha Vikas Aghadi phenomenon although Patil claimed that for now it is limited to NCP.
“This is going to damage the BJP in its own game. It is also true that such a move could not go ahead without proper approval and coordination from the alliance partners. The NCP is going ahead with a major joining (of leaders). There are leaders who are not open to the NCP line but can get along with the Shiv Sena line. With Khadse joining NCP, there was no disgruntlement from anyone from the NCP, not even the local unit. The process was going on for two-three months,” this aide told HuffPost India requesting anonymity.
Some Shiv Sena leaders including senior minister Gulab Patil have publicly asked Pankaja Munde to join their party.
Patil said he’s not involved in any efforts to lure BJP leaders to his coalition partners.
“My job is to grow my party. But if anybody (from BJP) wants to join Shiv Sena or Congress, they are most welcome. I would not do anything to stop them from doing that because we are all working in alliance. But for the time we are only thinking about people who want to join our party. Because people (from BJP and Vanchit) are contacting us,” Patil said.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.