Most Congress leaders and sympathisers in Maharashtra admit that one characteristic that their party lacks in Maharashtra is aggression.
Hit by a series of desertions from its ranks before the 2019 state assembly elections, the Congress had almost given up on its chances. Series of unforeseen circumstances saw it being propelled into power as part of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) regime in Maharashtra with the Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). However, there is a perception that it has let itself be bullied by its ally, the NCP, which is steadily encroaching on its turf.
However, in Nanabhau Falgunrao aka Nana Patole, the Congress has managed to get an aggressive face to head its state unit in Maharashtra. It is expected that Patole’s image as a leader of the other backward Kunbi (peasant/ tiller) community, which has significant numbers in Vidarbha, will help the Congress regain lost ground from the BJP in the crucial region where it once held undisputed sway. Vidarbha has 62 of the 288 seats in the Maharashtra legislative assembly.
The 1963-born Patole exemplifies the concept of a permanent rebel in politics, switching sides between the Congress and BJP with ease, while striking out on his own at times.
Born to a government servant, the resident of Sukali village located in Bhandara district’s Sakoli taluka cut his teeth in politics during college days as the leader of the Congress student wing National Students Union of India (NSUI) and later as a Youth Congressman.
After being elected to the Bhandara zilla parishad in 1992 as an independent against the official Congress nominee, Patole returned to the party. However, he rebelled yet again during the 1995 assembly polls against Dayaram Kapgate of the Congress and contested as an independent, but lost.
He, however, made his maiden entry to the state legislative assembly in 1999 as a Congress MLA representing the Lakhandur assembly constituency, repeating his feat in 2004. Patole was an active MLA in the House, often raising issues relating to the people of Vidarbha.
But Patole lived up to his reputation as a rolling stone and fell out with his party again, quitting his assembly seat in protest against the then Congress-NCP government’s failure to address the woes of paddy farmers. In 2009, he fought the Lok Sabha polls from the Bhandara-Gondia constituency against the BJP’s MP Shishupal Patle and NCP heavyweight Praful Patel.
In 2006, Maharashtra and the nation had been shaken by the brutal murders of the Buddhist-Dalit Bhotmange family in the Khairlanji village in Bhandara and many of those named as the accused were OBCs. This had sharpened the divide between the Dalits and the OBCs in the region.
Patole, who headed the OBC Chhava Sangram Sanghatana took an aggressive pro-Kunbi stand during the polls, leading to massive polarisation. His supporters claimed that the Khairlanji murders were not a caste-driven crime and pointed to the rape and murder of a minor OBC girl by a Dalit youth at Bhandara in 2006.
Eventually, Patel won the polls but Patole was the runner-up, with the BJP’s Patle being pushed to third place. Patole soon joined the BJP and was elected to the assembly from Sakoli in Bhandara. In 2014, riding the Modi wave, which buttressed his support base among Kunbis and its Zade sub-caste which he belongs to, Patole emerged as a giant-killer trouncing Patel. Patole defeated Patel, with whom he had a running battle, by a margin of almost 1.50 lakh votes.
However, the rebellious spark in Patole refused to die down. In 2016, when senior BJP leader and Maharashtra forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar was being cornered, allegedly at the behest of a faction in his party, over the “disappearance” of a tiger ‘Jai’ from the Umred Karhandla wildlife sanctuary near Nagpur, Patole waded into the controversy.
Patole wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the issue. Patole claimed that the tiger had been poached along with more such big cats and alleged that local forest officials were involved.
In 2017, Patole did something which was other seen as unthinkable. He spoke out against Modi, and claimed that he was asked to keep mum when he tried to raise issues relating to farmers in a meeting of state MPs with the Prime Minister. Patole also attacked then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and met dissident BJP leader Yashwant Sinha during his agitation in Maharashtra. He was reported to be upset over being denied a ministerial berth.
Eventually, Patole quit the BJP in the same year and joined the Congress later. He delivered yet another blow to the BJP after the NCP’s Madhukarrao Kukde defeated the BJP’s candidate Hemant Patle in the subsequent by-elections. Trying to live up to his reputation as a giant slayer, Patole contested the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as a Congress nominee against the BJP’s heavyweight and union minister Nitin Gadkari from Nagpur, but lost.
Subsequently, he was elected for his fourth term to the state assembly from Sakoli defeating then minister of state and Fadnavis confidante Parinay Fuke, who like him is a Kunbi but from another sub-caste (Tirole). Despite his election as the assembly speaker, it was obvious that Patole’s choice for the position would be akin to putting a square peg in a round hole. Congress ministers often grumbled that Patole would unilaterally summon officers from their departments for meetings without keeping them in the loop.
Though change was in the air for a long time in the state Congress due to revenue minister and Patole’s predecessor Balasaheb Thorat holding multiple positions and being a mild leader, what may have swung things Patole’s way may have been his aggression, OBC identity and political location in Vidarbha. Also, other contenders like energy minister Nitin Raut, who is a Dalit from Nagpur, were not eager to relinquish their ministerial posts.
However, as the MPCC chief, Patole will have to wear the proverbial crown of thorns. Apart from keeping ally NCP in check and preventing further erosion of the Congress vote base, Patole must also balance the contradictions of the party’s alliance with erstwhile foe Shiv Sena and more importantly keep his rebellious tendencies in check.
The victory of the Congress from the Nagpur graduates constituency in the state assembly, which was a BJP bastion, shows that the party still retains goodwill among its core voters in Vidarbha and can stand a chance if its leaders put up a united fight.
Despite the gradual erosion of its electoral base, the Congress is a divided house. The notoriously outspoken Patole will have to accommodate various warring factions often engaged in a fratricidal civil war with each other living up to the saying in Marathi: Bada ghar, pokal wase (a huge house with a hollowed out edifice).
So, will Patole be able to walk the tightrope or will the permanent rebel in politics rear his head again? Wait and watch.