Analysis: BJP’s bid to break NCP, Congress’s control over western Maharashtra

BJP leader Kirit Somaiya’s recent charges of a multi-crore money laundering scam against senior NCP leader and Minister Hasan Mushrif is a pointer: observers

BJP leader Kirit Somaiya’s recent allegations of a multi-crore money laundering scam against senior Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) leader and Maharashtra Minister Hasan Mushrif reflect a larger struggle on the BJP’s part to break the stranglehold of the NCP and the Congress in the sugar belt of western Maharashtra, say observers.

Mr. Somaiya has accused Mr. Mushrif, a five-time MLA and an influential leader from Kolhapur, of being embroiled in a ₹127 crore money laundering scandal as well of irregularities to the tune of ₹100 crore in a cooperative sugar factory owned by him. Mr. Mushrif has denied all accusations.

According to the observers, such accusations by the BJP against NCP and Congress leaders is a part of a tussle that has been going on since the ascendancy of Narendra Modi and the BJP at the Centre in 2014.

Before 2014

Before the 2014 Lok Sabha and State Assembly polls, the BJP had failed to make significant inroads in the Maharashtra’s ‘sugar heartland’, consisting the districts of Pune, Satara, Sangli, Kolhapur, Solapur and Ahmednagar.

In the Parliamentary poll that year, the National Democratic Front (NDA) alliance, which included the BJP, the Shiv Sena and farmer leader Raju Shetti’s Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS), won six of the 10 Lok Sabha seats in the sugar belt, while the Congress-NCP combine got the remaining ones.

In the 2014 Assembly polls, despite the BJP and the Shiv Sena winning more than half the 70 seats in Pune, Sangli, Satara, Kolhapur, Ahmednagar and Solapur districts, top NCP and Congress leaders managed to hold their own, with the NCP-Congress combine winning on 30 crucial seats in this belt.

It was a significant leap for the BJP, whose base till then has predominantly centred around the Vidarbha region, where the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is also headquartered.

Sugar cooperatives

The sugar cooperatives, considered the traditional fiefdom of the powerful Maratha community, have thrown up leaders like Yashwantrao Chavan, Vasantdada Patil, Sharad Pawar (all past Congress Chief Ministers) and Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil (a Congressman who also flirted briefly with the BJP in 2001) who have wielded disproportionate influence over the State politics, with the BJP remaining virtually absent in this region before 2014.

“Whether or not western Maharashtra holds the key to the State’s politics, the tremendous influence of leaders from the ‘sugar heartland’ is undeniable. Prior to the BJP’s rise in the State, all of them belonged to either the Congress, and later the NCP. In fact, it was thought axiomatic that elections to local sugar cooperatives were more hotly contested than the Assembly polls itself and that the chairmen of these sugar lobbies wielded greater influence than some MLAs or MPs,” observes senior political analyst Vivek Bhavsar.

In the five years between 2014 and 2019, however, the regional BJP under Devendra Fadnavis’ chief ministership made determined efforts to supplant the NCP and the Congress sugar barons from the region and expand the saffron party’s influence there.

BJP’s strategy

Since the BJP failed to create indigenous cadres, the party tried to increase their clout in the sugar belt by ‘importing’ leaders from the NCP and the Congress by either bailing out dysfunctional sugar factories owned by NCP and Congress leaders or harvesting the resentments of powerful local families (from both the NCP and the Congress) against the dominance of the Pawar family.

“A striking example was the BJP exploiting the decades’ long epic rivalry between the Vikhe-Patil and Pawar clans to award Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil’s son Sujay Vikhe-Patil a ticket from Ahmednagar before the 2019 Lok Sabha election,” says Mr. Bhavsar.

This generational feud between the two clans originated during the 1991 Lok Sabha poll, when Mr. Vikhe-Patil’s father – former Union Minister Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil -moved the Bombay High Court after losing the Ahmednagar seat, which he contested as a Janata Dal candidate to a Pawar nominee, Yashwantrao Gadakh. Much to Mr. Pawar’s chagrin, both the High Court (and later the Supreme Court) did not validate Mr. Gadakh’s election, thus sparking a bitter conflict between the two clans.

Defection

Yet another instance was the defection of Ranjitsinh Mohite-Patil, son of erstwhile Pawar aide Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, to the BJP side after Mr. Pawar allegedly overlooked Mr. Ranjit’s candidature for the Madha Lok Sabha seat. The BJP managed to turn the rivalry between the Pawar and the Mohite-Patil clans to secure the support of Mr. Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, once the State’s Deputy Chief Minister.

Likewise, in Sangli, Sanjaykaka Patil, a former NCP man, switched allegiances with the BJP while it tried to foment unrest in Baramati (NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s citadel) by awarding a ticket to Kanchan Kul, wife of Rashtriya Samaj Paksha (RSP) leader and Mr. Fadnavis’ favourite Rahul Kul – a strategy that ultimately came a cropper as Mr. Pawar’s daughter, Supriya Sule, effortlessly retained her seat by trouncing Ms. Kul by a huge vote margin.

According to observers, the prime motivation for Mr. Patil and Mr. Kul gravitating towards the BJP was economic as the ruling party promised to bail out dysfunctional and cash-strapped sugar factories of both leaders.

In Kolhapur, the BJP tried to cash in on the open rivalry between then NCP leader Dhananjay Mahadik and senior Congressman Satej ‘Bunty’ Patil. Mr. Mahadik joined the BJP side soon after the 2019 Assembly polls.

Use of Central agencies

“This spate of defections from the NCP and the Congress to the BJP was somewhat checked after the Shiv Sena severed ties with its fraternal saffron partner to form a government with the NCP and the Congress. Hence, the BJP’s use of Central agencies like the Enforcement Directorate is part of this game. The agencies have already claimed [former Home Minister and NCP leader] Anil Deshmukh. So now, through Mr. Somaiya, the party is trying to make life difficult for Mr. Mushrif,” a Kolhapur-based election watcher notes.

He says given that the BJP today had a significant presence in neighbouring Solapur as well as Pune and Satara districts, Mr. Mushrif’s scalp would be a major step in dislodging the NCP from Kolhapur, where the saffron party is relatively weak.

According to this election observer, the BJP’s strategy is to exploit the possible schisms that may arise within an NCP bereft of Mr. Sharad Pawar’s leadership in the future.

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