For the past four years, the question uppermost on the minds of many keen observers of politics in Maharashtra, is not “Nathabhau (Eknath Khadse) ko gussa kyon aata hai?”
While the reasons for the disgruntlement of the senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader are obvious, there are speculations about why he has uncharacteristically failed to take his running battle to the logical end. But, like many complex questions in politics, this too may lack any ephemeral explanations or answers.
Despite publicly voicing his anger at the party leadership, especially former chief minister and incumbent leader of opposition Devendra Fadnavis, after he was forced to quit the state cabinet in 2016 and subsequently sidelined, Khadse (68) has stopped short of biting the bullet.
However, earlier this week, Khadse launched his strongest such broadside at Fadnavis and his clique for conspiring against him and ‘Bahujan’ leaders, indicating that this time, things may not go as per the previous script.
Khadse, one of the party’s prominent other backward class (OBC) faces, has now claimed he had been scapegoated as he was a chief ministerial aspirant. While Shiv Sena minister Abdul Sattar has invited Khadse to join the Sena, the latter has however claimed that he will not quit the BJP.
Khadse’s loyalists claim that despite their leader’s disgruntlement, his emotional connect with the BJP runs strong as someone who helped build it ground-up at a time when it was derided as a party of the ‘Shetjis’ (merchants) and ‘Bhatjis’ (Brahmins).
Khadse was initially groomed by a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker and Jan Sanghite Ashok Phadke in Jalgaon. Khadse’s Leva Patil community in North Maharashtra was then firmly with the Congress due to the influence of senior leader Madhukarrao Chaudhari. Khadse gradually helped the BJP strike roots in this landed agrarian group and other OBCs.
In 1990, Khadse was elected to the state legislative assembly from the Edlabad constituency (now renamed Muktainagar) in Jalgaon. The seat was once represented by Pratibha Patil of the Congress, who became the President of India in 2007.
In the assembly, Khadse earned his spurs cornering the erstwhile Congress government over a sensational sex scandal in Jalgaon. In 1995, when the Shiv Sena-BJP regime came to power, Khadse held cabinet portfolios for departments like finance and irrigation.
Though the saffron alliance regime lost to the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in 1999, Khadse was known for his legislative interventions, holding forth in lengthy monologues in his trademark style.
After becoming leader of opposition in 2009, Khadse actively promoted Devendra Fadnavis, who would sit on the second row behind him in the assembly.
Along with BJP stalwart late Gopinath Munde, Khadse threw his weight behind Fadnavis ensuring that the young MLA from Nagpur became the state unit president in 2013, replacing Sudhir Mungantiwar, a loyalist of incumbent Union minister Nitin Gadkari.
In 2014, when the BJP snapped its alliance with the Shiv Sena for the Maharashtra assembly elections, it was Khadse who delivered the coup de grace in a press conference. This move came as a cropper as the BJP shrugged off its position as an also-ran and emerged as the single-largest party. Khadse later claimed that he was among those who prevailed on the leadership to pursue the go-it-alone line.
However, despite being a claimant to the chief minister’s position, Khadse was beaten to it by Fadnavis. Though he was the veritable number two in the cabinet, with portfolios like revenue, agriculture and state excise, Khadse made his ambitions clear.
Referring to his OBC identity, Khadse claimed that the masses wanted a Bahujan as the chief minister. This was a reference to Fadnavis being a Brahmin and being seen as an appointee of the central leadership rather than a popular choice.
Apart from getting his widowed daughter-in-law Raksha (wife of his son Nikhil who died by suicide in 2013) elected as a Lok Sabha MP from Raver, Khadse also ensured his wife Mandakini became the chairperson of the powerful state co-operative milk federation. Daughter Rohini Khadse Khewalkar was accommodated as the chairperson of the Jalgaon district central co-operative bank. These and other factors like his outspoken nature are said to have earned him the ire of many in the government and the party, including some central leaders.
In 2016, Khadse had to quit the Fadnavis-led cabinet. This came after a string of charges, including him being in touch with the wife of dreaded underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, and the controversial purchase of land reserved for the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) at prices less than the market rates.
Khadse’s partisans allege this “smear campaign” was run at the behest of those close to Fadnavis.
In 2019, Khadse was denied a renomination from his traditional Muktainagar seat and his daughter Rohini, who was fielded instead, lost by a thin margin to a Shiv Sena rebel. His loyalists attribute this to internal sabotage.
Incidentally, another chief ministerial aspirant and OBC leader, Pankaja Munde, the daughter of Gopinath Munde, also faced a shock defeat at the hands of estranged cousin and incumbent NCP minister Dhananjay Munde.
Khadse was also overlooked in favour of newly-minted entrants to the BJP during the nominations to the state legislative council earlier this year.
Later, he was not given a prominent position in the newly-constituted state BJP executive committee, and accommodated only as a special invitee. State unit chief Chandrakant Patil indicated that Khadse would have to contend himself with being a permanent fixture in the state’s version of the margadarshak mandal.
Now, there are speculations on Khadse’s plan of action. Some feel that he may quit for greener pastures once the coronavirus pandemic in Maharashtra subsides, as the BJP leadership seems to be intent on tiring him out. Biding time may lead to sympathy for Khadse petering out.
His supporters claim ‘Bhau’ is being propped up by other disgruntled leaders in the party and hence may choose to remain within the BJP, and form an anti-Fadnavis caucus. There is a perception within some state leaders that Fadnavis rubbed the Shiv Sena the wrong way, leading to the BJP’s longest-standing ally finally walking out on it, ensuring that the BJP had to sit on the opposition benches despite being the single-largest party.
This, coupled with resentment among BJP “loyalists” against “outsiders” being given prominence by the Fadnavis camp, may lead to Khadse emerging as a figure around whom these disgruntled elements can coalesce.
However, Fadnavis loyalists claim that Khadse is trying to assert his “nuisance value” for an honorable “political rehabilitation”.
Despite the political setbacks, it is obvious that Khadse is not a pushover. His Leva Patils, who are akin to the Patidars of Gujarat, wield influence in parts of North Maharashtra. Khadse is known to have stitched together a local rainbow coalition of Bahujan, non-Maratha castes in the sub-region, being elected for consecutive terms from a constituency with a fair sprinkling of castes like Marathas, Kolis and Gujar Patils.
With the BJP succeeding in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Maharashtra, as Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray heads a Sena, Congress and NCP government, there is said to be growing restiveness among a section of BJP legislators, especially imports from other parties.
The strategy of the BJP leadership to nominate a leader from the non-dominant caste (Fadnavis) as the chief minister has also failed to pay dividends beyond a point in Maharashtra despite an initial consolidation of non-Marathas.
Already, a backlash by OBC groups like Telis (oil pressers and sellers) and Kunbis (peasants) in Vidarbha, is said to have cost the BJP heavily in the assembly polls. With one of its strongest OBC faces making his anger obvious, the BJP will have to work hard to manage the fallout on its core vote base.
In his latest outburst, Khadse has warned that he is not willing to walk into the political sunset soon. Those familiar with the man claim that despite his flaws, he is a doughty fighter, overcoming the trauma of his son’s suicide and a kidney transplant to hit the ground running.
As many political adversaries who have crossed paths with Khadse admit, the man from Muktainagar neither forgives nor forgets. The coming months may test the veracity of this claim.
The author is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas’. Views are personal.