Pankaja Munde, Khadse Play OBC Card to Challenge Fadnavis as Maha Drama Creates Fissures in BJP

As the adage goes, nothing succeeds like success. But, things falls apart once lady luck turns elusive.

For the BJP, the sudden setback in post-electoral machinations, which kept it away from power, have led to rising voices of discontent against the leadership of former chief minister and incumbent leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis.

Fadnavis, who emerged as the dark horse for the chief minister’s position in 2014, and held almost undisputed sway over the government and party for five years, has obviously rubbed many in his party the wrong way while exercising his authority.

With the state assembly elections throwing up a hung mandate, BJP’s ally Shiv Sena — which had its own litany of grievances against the BJP — demanded the chief minister’s position on a rotational basis and finally, the alliance fell through.

The Shiv Sena was tying up with the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to form a rainbow coalition. However, a pre-emptive smash-and-grab attempt to gain power, which saw President’s Rule being repealed early in the morning, followed by Fadnavis and NCP leader Ajit Pawar being sworn in as the chief minister and his deputy, came a cropper within days.

With Fadnavis’ authority and the blinding glue of power for the party, fading away, the BJP seems to be imploding fast in Maharashtra.

The first bugle was sounded by senior BJP leader and former minister Eknath Khadse, who blamed leaders from his party for the defeat of his daughter Rohini Khadse-Khewalkar from the Muktainagar constituency.

Khadse, who was the leader of opposition between 2009 and 2014, was eager to get the chief minister’s job after the BJP came to power. But Fadnavis, who he had mentored on the opposition benches, made the cut. Though Khadse joined the cabinet as the revenue minister, his disgruntlement was evident. In 2016, there was a sudden rush of allegations against Khadse, including those which claimed he was in touch with fugitive underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, and charges of impropriety in a land deal.

Despite Khadse resigning from the cabinet, his associates claimed he would soon be re-inducted in his position as the effective number two, something that eventually eluded their leader. Later, Khadse was denied a nomination from his constituency in Jalgaon and his daughter Rohini, who was fielded at the twelfth hour, lost by a slender margin to a Shiv Sena rebel.

Khadse has alleged that his defeat was the doing of some leaders from his own party. Khadse’s ire is aimed at Fadnavis’ associate and former water resources minister Girish Mahajan, who too hails from Jalgaon. Mahajan’s Gurjar Patil community has significant pockets in Muktainagar.

On Thursday, Khadse and other BJP leaders joined a show of strength by another disgruntled BJP leader — Pankaja Munde. Pankaja, the daughter of BJP stalwart, the late Gopinath Munde, was the rural development minister in the Fadnavis cabinet. She faced a shock defeat at the hands of her estranged cousin and NCP leader Dhananjay Munde from her traditional Parli constituency.

Dhananjay, who it was alleged was a prime player in Ajit Pawar’s still-born rebellion, is close to Fadnavis since their days in the BJP.

Speaking at Gopinathgad in Beed, a memorial erected in memorial of Munde who died in a road accident in Delhi in 2014, Pankaja, whose loss is claimed to be an inside job, said she would not leave the BJP but dared the party to act against her. She also announced her resignation from the BJP’s core committee and has declared a state-wide yatra from next month.

After her father’s death, Pankaja had launched a statewide ‘Sangharsh Yatra.’ Incidentally, after Fadnavis was appointed chief minister, Pankaja had said the ‘Bahujan samaj’ wanted her to become the chief minister and that held the post in the eyes of the masses.

There is another factor that binds both Munde and Khadse — both are ‘Bahujans’ and belong to the other backward classes (OBC) category. The OBCs, a conglomeration of around 500 classes and communities across religious denominations, form around 53 per cent of Maharashtra’s population.

The BJP, and its previous avatar Jan Sangh, was seen as a party of the cultural and social elite, namely Brahmins and mercantile communities before the late Vasantrao Bhagwat launched a social engineering project to take it to the masses. Bhagwat mentored leaders such as the late Pramod Mahajan, his brother-in-law Munde, and others to expand the party’s base.

Leaders like Munde, who belonged to the Vanjari community; Khadse, whose Leva Patils have strong pockets in North Maharashtra; and Anna Dange, who had a base in the dhangars (shepherds), were credited with taking the BJP to the masses. The Vanjaris, who are into manual labour and trade, have a presence in parts like Marathwada, parts of western and north Maharashtra, and Vidarbha.

Today, despite the BJP being seen as a Brahmanical party, the bedrock of its base in Maharashtra lies in the ‘Madhav’ (Mali, Dhangar, Vanjari) combination, with an extra ‘M’ being thrown in to denote the dominant Maratha community.

Disgruntlement against the BJP leadership among these OBC leaders does not bode well for the party. To add to the party’s troubles, a section of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionaries and BJP loyalists are miffed at new arrivistes from parties like the NCP getting precedence over them in the Fadnavis regime.

Hence, this show of strength by Pankaja and Khadse may lead to a further erosion of support. While Pankaja seems to be eager to brazen it out within the BJP, Khadse, who has met NCP chief Sharad Pawar and chief minister Uddhav Thackeray, has indicated he is not averse to jumping ship.

Pankaja, who had earlier removed the reference to the party from her Twitter bio and also kept away from BJP meetings, warned that while Munde had “taken a party of a handful to the masses, this should not go into reverse gear”.

The presence of former BJP ministers and incumbent and former legislators during the Gopinathgad rally makes it obvious that a section of the party sympathises with Pankaja and these disgruntled leaders.

A faction loyal to Union minister Nitin Gadkari is also said to be uneasy at being cornered consistently in the party. Notably, Gadkari who belongs to Nagpur in Vidarbha like Fadnavis and is from the same Brahmin community, hardly campaigned for the BJP during the polls. This is said to have affected their prospects in the region and beyond. The chances of these groups coalescing within the party to form a front against Fadnavis may not be ruled out.

This struggle will be the litmus test for the BJP, which has managed to overcome its position as a minnow in Maharashtra’s politics, to emerge as the single-largest in the assembly, and define the course of its politics in the state.

(The author is a journalist and author of the book ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the shadow of their Senas’ published by Penguin Ebury Press. This is the first political biography of Uddhav and Raj Thackeray, and has been translated into Marathi as ‘Thackeray Viruddha Thackeray’. Views are personal)