Politics of Turncoats: A Chequered History of Defections in Maharashtra and Their Aftermath

Dhaval Kulkarni
·8-min read

In the 1950s, the Leftist Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) was among the strongest opposition parties in Maharashtra before a series of defections to the Congress restricted it to a marginal presence in just around two districts.

Similar is the case of the Republican Party of India (RPI) set up in 1957, a year after Babasaheb Ambedkar’s death. Though envisaged by Ambedkar as a rainbow coalition of all oppressed forces, the RPI was unfortunately restricted to just a caste within the larger Dalit community.

Perhaps uneasy at the growth of a challenger to the established social order, Congress leaders allied with the RPI in 1957 and gradually co-opted its functionaries in the name of 'berjeche rajkaran' (politics of accretion).

Weakened after a series of almost amoebic splits, the RPI is a pale shadow of its former self, with leaders of most factions, including Union Minister of State Ramdas Athavale either allied with established parties like the BJP or Congress. Likewise, in case of the Socialists, their cadre is now dispersed within parties across the political spectrum from the Congress to even the Shiv Sena.

High-profile leaders like Sharad Pawar, Narayan Rane and Raj Thackeray have also split from their parties to plough their own furrows.

The latest to join the ranks of these defectors is former BJP leader Eknath Khadse, who jumped ship to the Nationalist Congress (NCP) after a protracted feud with former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. BJP leaders say though he may not cause a vertical split in the rank-and-file, the reverberations of Khadse’s moves will have a larger impact on the party’s political fortunes by strengthening the narrative about a Bahujan, other backward class (OBC) leader being marginalised by a party with an upper caste credo.

The history of political defections in Maharashtra and resultant consolidations and fragmentations, which have together altered the course of its politics, is an interesting one.

The Congress, which launched "ayaram gayaram" politics in Maharashtra, found itself in a similar situation in the 1960s and 1970s. In the late 1970s, the party was weakened by a series of splits with stalwarts like Yashwantrao Chavan and Shankarrao Chavan walking out.

In the aftermath of the Emergency, the Congress (U) and Congress (Indira) dispensation, the first such post-poll coalition government in the state, which came to power in 1978, was felled in July that year by industries minister Sharad Pawar. Pawar had followed mentor Yashwantrao Chavan into the Congress (U). With a breakaway faction of his party and the Janata Party, Pawar became the youngest chief minister of Maharashtra at 38. However, his Progressive Democratic Front (PDF) government was dismissed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1980.

The Congress leadership appointed a non-Maratha Abdul Rehman Antulay as the chief minister, followed by Marathas without a strong mass base like Babasaheb Bhosale and Shivajirao Nilangekar Patil, which eroded the party’s support.

In 1986, Pawar merged his Congress (Socialist) into the Congress (I). This created a political opening for the Shiv Sena, which had no strong presence beyond the Mumbai-Thane belt, to expand in other parts of the state as Congress (S) cadre who were at odds with established leaders from the Congress migrated to it.

This shattered the dominance of the Congress over the state’s polity as the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance, which was led by Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, who had positioned himself as a right-wing mascot, put up a swashbuckling performance in the 1990 state assembly polls.

In 1995, the Shiv Sena-BJP led saffron alliance came to power largely due to support from a set of turncoats. These were Congress rebels who had failed to get the party nomination due to the factional feuds between the Sharad Pawar and Sudhakarrao Naik factions, but were elected as independents.

In 1999, after a running battle with Sonia Gandhi, who by then was the Congress president, Pawar, along with Tariq Anwar and PA Sangma, raised the issue of her foreign origins, and were promptly expelled. They launched the NCP.

After the 1999 Maharashtra assembly elections, a tussle between the Shiv Sena and BJP over leading the government saw a stalemate. The BJP’s Gopinath Munde, who was the deputy to the Sena’s Manohar Joshi and later Narayan Rane, wanted a stab at the chief minister’s post, and began negotiating with the NCP, overcoming his political rivalry with Pawar. Relations between the two saffron allies deteriorated, and by the time its crisis managers swung into action, Pawar and the Congress buried the hatchet to form the government.

After a power struggle with Uddhav Thackeray, then the Shiv Sena working president, Rane, the then leader of opposition, quit the party to join the Congress in 2005.

Till then, the answer to the war-cry on Mumbai’s streets ‘Avaaz Kunacha?’ (Whose voice rings loudest?) was obvious—Shivsenecha (That of the Shiv Sena). However, this was a watershed year for the Shiv Sena as its dominance over street level politics and the use of muscle was challenged by one of its own—Rane.

Elements in the Sena who had been disgruntled at Uddhav’s style of functioning coalesced around Rane. This was a far cry from the days when Shiv Sena dissenters like Chhagan Bhujbal (now a NCP minister), who quit the party in a surprise move in 1991, with his group of disgruntled leaders, had to face physical attacks from incensed Sainiks.

In 2005, when Rane posed one of the most potent existential challenges for the Shiv Sena, Bal Thackeray’s estranged nephew Raj quit the party to form his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) the next year. The anti-outsider campaign launched by the MNS against Hindi-speaking migrants from northern states earned it rich political dividends among the youth and women.

In the 2009 Maharashtra assembly elections, the Shiv Sena got just 44 seats, ending up as a poor number four in bench strength, while the MNS got 13 legislators elected.

But today the Sena is part of the government, with Uddhav, the man who had almost been written off as a politician, heading it. Unable to replicate the Sena’s “reward economy” model in and around Mumbai and due to limitations in Raj's style of functioning, the MNS soon ran its course. Rane too is a pale shadow of his former self as a BJP Rajya Sabha MP.

However, despite this, even hardcore Shiv Sainiks admit that had the party been a unified house, with Uddhav, Raj and Rane under one roof, the Sena may have been politically much stronger. Even Bhujbal, the man who faced physical retribution from Sainiks, and made personal attacks on his former mentor Bal Thackeray, is nostalgic about his salad days in the Shiv Sena, his voice trailing off when speaking on a ‘what if’ scenario if he was still with the party.

While there have been defectors who have been successful in changing political loyalties, some coups have failed. This includes Rane’s attempt during his days in the Shiv Sena to topple the Vilasrao Deshmukh-led Congress-NCP regime (2002), BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde’s reported attempts to join the Congress a few years before his death in 2014, and most recently, Ajit Pawar’s coup which saw an early morning swearing in as Devendra Fadnavis’ deputy, which petered out after uncle Sharad Pawar marshalled his forces.

Eknath Khadse does not have the political base and guile of a Sharad Pawar, muscle power of a Narayan Rane or the charisma of a Raj Thackeray. But even BJP leaders who are on the fence in the battle between the pro and anti-Fadnavis camps admit that Khadse’s decision to switch sides has an impact that goes much beyond its immediate political fallout.

That unease in the anti-Fadnavis camp at the former chief minister’s style of functioning is growing is an open secret.

A section of OBC leaders like Pankaja Munde, the daughter of the late BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde, whose larger-than-life shadow looms over the party even today, are disgruntled at attempts to marginalise them. Other backwards form the mainstay of the BJP in Maharashtra due to the Mali Dhangar Vanjari (MADHAV) social alliance forged since the 1980s. These leaders may be watching Khadse’s political rehabilitation closely before making their moves.

Khadse's estrangement, along with that of other Bahujan leaders, may feed the narrative of non-Brahmin leaders hitting the glass ceiling in a party dominated by Brahmins and upper-castes.

The BJP’s growth over the past six years has been the result of the Narendra Modi wave and the switchover of established leaders from other parties. Most of these new imports hail from the dominant Maratha community, which is odds with the OBCs. Hence, this alienation of its core vote base does not bode well for the BJP.

For a man who has grown with the party for the past four decades, BJP leaders admit that Khadse knows a lot about the strengths, and more crucially, the weaknesses of his former party.

The fear in many minds, as a senior BJP leader explains, is: "Ghar ka bhedi Lanka dhaye (traitors demolish their clan)."

(The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas.’ Views are personal.)