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BJP Loyalists vs Outsiders: Is Party Quietly Edging Out Veteran Bahujan Leaders for New ‘Imports’?

File photo of PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. (PTI photo)

File photo of PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. (PTI photo)

Veteran leader Eknath Khadse, who has threatened to quit the BJP, has touched on a larger issue which has struck a chord with many--the preference given to 'outsiders' who joined the party from the Congress and the NCP.

As senior leader Eknath Khadse sounds the bugle against recent imports to the party being preferred over loyalists, most Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) veterans may perhaps identify with the analogy of the Arab being edged out of his tent by the camel.

Khadse, a powerful other backward classes (OBC) leader who was once in the contention for the Chief Minister's position, has been vocal about those like him and former ministers Pankaja Munde and Chandrashekhar Bavankule, being overlooked for nominations to the legislative council.

More importantly, Khadse, who has threatened to quit the party, has touched on a larger issue which has struck a chord with many--the preference given to "outsiders," who joined the BJP from the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

BJP leaders aligned with the camp at odds with that of former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, claim that his (Fadnavis’s) reign has seen party hoppers take precedence at the cost of those from the ranks. While the jury is still out on whether disgruntled leaders like Khadse may indeed walk out of the BJP, many feel they may tap into this latent anger and create a ginger group within the party as a counter-balance to the Fadnavis faction.

Khadse has been repeatedly pointing out in his media interviews that while those like him built the party ground-up for decades when the BJP was a marginal political force, the newer imports secured the best opportunities without working hard for them. He has also claimed that the dominant culture in the BJP has changed in favour of these new recruits.

Khadse, who was the veritable number two as the Revenue Minister in the Fadnavis regime, had to quit the cabinet in 2016 after a slew of charges against him, including one by a hacker, who claimed that he was in touch with dreaded underworld don Dawood Ibrahim's wife on the phone.

In the 2019 assembly elections, Khadse was denied a nomination in favour of his daughter Rohini Khadse-Khewalkar, who lost by a wafer-thin margin to a Shiv Sena rebel from Muktainagar in Jalgaon, which her father has represented since 1990. In Parli in Beed district, Pankaja, another CM hopeful, and the daughter of BJP veteran, late Gopinath Munde, faced a shock defeat against her estranged cousin and NCP leader Dhananjay Munde, who is close to Fadnavis.

Khadse has alleged that while his name along with that of Pankaja, and former minister Chandrashekhar Bavankule, who was denied a nomination from Kamthi in Nagpur, were finalised by the state Parliamentary board, the party instead chose to nominate Ranjitsinh Mohite Patil, Gopichand Padalkar, Ramesh Karad and Pravin Datke. Of these, the first two are recent recruits to the BJP.

Incidentally, Khadse, Pankaja and Bavankule, are OBC leaders, and hail from established sections within the other backwards like Leva Patils, Vanjaris and Telis. Perhaps in a mood to assuage the Vanjaris, who form one of the bedrocks of the BJP's base in Maharashtra, the party nominated Karad, who is said to be close to Pankaja, to the council.

But the gradual and rather obvious marginalisation of 'Bahujan' leaders like Khadse has led to charges that non-Brahmin leaders are being neglected within the party. Former Minister and Dhangar (shepherd) community leader Ram Shinde, who lost from Karjat-Jamkhed in Ahmednagar, has also expressed his disappointment at being denied a council berth.

Khadse has repeatedly claimed that Bahujan leaders like him, who have worked hard to help the BJP overcome its image of being a party dominated by the Brahmins, mercantile castes, and the social and urban elite, are being edged out.

As BJP sources note, despite its claims of being a disciplined and monolithic outfit, the BJP had some internal countercurrents within its fold, like the clash between sections of Brahmin and non-Brahmin leaders and those from and outside the RSS cadre. The present crisis has led to the emergence of a new front of old-timers being pitted against newcomers.

They complain that though the BJP was seen as trying to practice “berjeche rajkaran'” or the politics of inclusion, a term popularised by veteran Congressman and former Deputy Prime Minister Yashwantrao Chavan, the strategy of poaching leaders from other parties, has led to a problem of plenty.

They point to how a former NCP leader joined the BJP, became a MLC, and then rose to be a confidante of Fadnavis. Another loyalist of the former Chief Minister is Pravin Darekar, who cut his teeth in the Shiv Sena, joined the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) with then mentor Raj Thackeray, and finally switched sides to the BJP. Darekar was appointed as the Leader of Opposition in the legislative council, overriding the claims of senior BJP legislators.

Khadse's partisans claim that while ínternal politics is a constant feature in most political outfits, in the BJP, this took an institutional form with some powerful leaders acting against official party nominees to engineer their defeat.

However, this charge is hotly contested by Fadnavis loyalists, who claim that Khadse has been given his due by the party. For instance, while his daughter-in-law Raksha is a second-term Lok Sabha MP from Raver in Jalgaon district, his wife Mandakini was the Chairperson of the powerful state's apex cooperative milk federation (Mahananda). They assert that eventually, young and fresh blood needs to be inducted within the party with opportunities for upward mobility.

Though the BJP has been silent on Khadse's previous statements against the party, his latest outburst has been countered by state unit chief Chandrakantdada Patil, who is known to be close to union Home Minister and former national President Amit Shah. BJP leaders say this indicates that the party's central leadership may be in no mood to relent to Khadse, who has claimed to have offers from other parties, thus forcing his hand.

But, they agree that regardless of whether Khadse chooses to quit the BJP or not, some issues raised by him may continue to resonate for times to come.

Disclaimer:The author is a journalist and author of the book 'The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the shadow of their Senas'. Views are personal.
first published:May 17, 2020, 09:51 IST