Dussehra Dash: By Praising Uddhav and Pawar, Disgruntled Pankaja Keeps BJP Guessing About Next Move
File photo of BJP leader Pankaja Munde.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra has seen the exit of veteran leader Eknath Khadse, party men are wary of another disgruntled leader Pankaja Munde’s likely course of action.
Pankaja, the daughter of late BJP stalwart and other backward classes (OBC) icon Gopinath Munde, lost last year’s assembly elections from her father’s pocket borough of Parli in Beed district. In 2014, when the BJP chose Devendra Fadnavis as the chief minister of Maharashtra, Pankaja had pitched herself as the chief ministerial nominee of the masses or the Bahujan Samaj (a loose term used to refer to non-Brahmins) in an apparent counter to him.
Though Pankaja was the minister for rural development and women and child development in the Fadnavis regime, her tenure was marred by controversies like those over purchase of chikki.
In 2019, Pankaja faced a shock defeat at the hands of her paternal cousin Dhananjay Munde, who is now Maharashtra's social justice minister. Dhananjay was seen as uncle Gopinath’s political successor before the latter chose his eldest daughter to inherit the mantle, leading to the estranged nephew walking into the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)'s waiting arms. Incidentally, Dhananjay and Fadnavis were known to be close during their days in the BJP with the proximity continuing well after the latter became the chief minister. This has led to Pankaja’s supporters alleging that her defeat from Parli was an inside job.
There is a perception that a faction within the BJP is working to gradually chip away at Pankaja’s base and authority. While Pankaja’s name, along with that of Khadse, was being considered for the legislative council polls due earlier this year, the BJP tried to nurture a newer set of leaders from OBC communities by choosing fresh faces like Gopichand Padalkar, Pravin Datke and Ramesh Karad. Interestingly, while Pankaja is a Vanjari, the BJP gave a wildcard nomination to Karad, who belongs to the same caste.
Pankaja was later included in the party’s national executive as a secretary. Senior BJP leaders claim she had earlier opted out of an organisational position in the party’s state executive in Maharashtra.
The Vanjaris, who have significant numbers in parts of Marathwada, with pockets in Western Maharashtra and Vidarbha, are known for being among the most assertive OBCs in Maharashtra. They organised themselves into a formidable bloc under the leadership of Gopinath Munde, who once held almost undisputed sway over the state BJP. Ramesh Karad’s choice over Pankaja and the nomination of another Vanjari, Dr Bhagwat Karad, to the Rajya Sabha this year was seen as an attempt to undercut Pankaja’s influence over the community by creating a new line of leaders.
However, the Pankaja camp is said to be upset at another move by the party’s state leadership to undercut their leader’s influence among the sugarcane cutters.
Co-operative and private sugar mills are an important component of Maharashtra’s political economy. The state is estimated to have around 13 lakh sugarcane cutters. Of these, around 6.5 lakh are from impoverished Beed, most of them Vanjaris, who migrate for this seasonal, back-breaking work. Despite being a sugar baron himself, Gopinath Munde, who died in a road accident in Delhi in 2014, soon after being appointed as the rural development minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet, had built his leadership among these cane cutters. After his death, Pankaja took over this mantle.
The BJP has propped up legislator Suresh Dhas as a counter to Pankaja. Dhas, a former BJP MLA, crossed over to the NCP and unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha polls against Munde Senior in 2014. He switched back to the BJP, and in 2018, was elected as a member of the legislative council. Dhas is a Maratha, a community at odds with Vanjaris in Beed.
Dhas held over 100 meetings with sugarcane cutters in 16 districts. He demanded a whopping 150 per cent rise in wages, as compared to just 21 per cent sought by Pankaja. Another Munde-baiter, Vinayak Mete, a BJP ally and Maratha leader who heads the Shiv Sangram party, also held a similar outreach exercise.
The BJP’s state unit chief Chandrakant Dada Patil officially nominated Dhas to conduct this campaign. This attempt to undercut Pankaja on her turf had parallels with similar moves wherein Khadse, who has now joined the NCP, was trumped by Fadnavis loyalist and former water resources minister Girish Mahajan in his district of Jalgaon in north Maharashtra.
The marginalisation of OBC leaders like Pankaja and Khadse also has another subtext —the gradual shift of the BJP's character from being a party with a base in the OBC communities to one with a Maratha face. Originally seen as a party of upper castes like Brahmins and mercantile groups, the BJP Mandalised itself in the 1980s and gradually built its base among the other backwards due to efforts by party strategist Vasantrao Bhagwat, who mentored leaders like Gopinath Munde and his brother-in-law Pramod Mahajan.
Munde was the BJP’s strongest mass leader in Maharashtra. His death changed power equations with the elevation of Fadnavis and a new generation of leaders. After Munde’s demise, his younger daughter Pritam Munde Khade was elected to the Lok Sabha from Beed.
Under Fadnavis, the BJP has encompassed in its fold established Maratha leaders like Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and Ranjitsinh Mohite-Patil.
In her show of strength at the annual Dussehra rally, Pankaja dropped broad hints that all was not well between her and the BJP leadership.
While the BJP is going hammer and tongs at the Shiv Sena-led Maha Vikas Aghadi regime, Pankaja praised chief minister and Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray as her “elder brother”.
Stating that she would tour Maharashtra extensively, Pankaja resolved to hold a rally at the Shivaji Park grounds in Mumbai and get 120 MLAs elected. More importantly, she referred to the grounds, which have an organic connect with the Shiv Sena, as “Shivteerth”, borrowing from the Sena's lexicon.
Shiv Sena leaders like minister Gulabrao Patil and former minister Arjun Khotkar have already made an open offer to Pankaja to join the party.
Later, Pankaja raised further speculation about her future plan of action by her tweet, lauding NCP chief Sharad Pawar, but deleted it soon after.
In Maratha history, Dussehra marked ‘Seemollanghan’, or the time when the armies of the Maratha confederacy would cross the geographical boundaries of their homeland for military campaigns. Will her rally on the festival mark a similar journey for Pankaja?
Dhaval Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas.’ Views are personal.