Eknath Khadse: Where does he fit in the intricate Sena-NCP equation

Once a minister in Fadnavis’ government, Khadse recently joined the NCP
In the past, in Maharashtra, the traffic has been one-way: Members of Opposition parties, including the Congress, and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), resigning to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It became so bad that then BJP President Amit Shah jocularly remarked every leader in the Congress and the NCP — except for Sharad Pawar and Prithviraj Chavan — was queuing up to knock at the BJP’s doors.

That was just before the Assembly election when it looked as if the BJP was going to sweep Maharashtra. That it failed to do so, is another matter. But the fact is, it was the impending election that drove the traffic.

Which is why it is so surprising that top BJP leader Eknath Khadse chose to resign from the party and join the NCP at a time when he had nothing in hand: He is neither an MLA nor MLC, although his daughter-in-law Raksha is a BJP Lok Sabha MP from Raver. Khadse was not exactly flotsam or jetsam in the BJP: He was senior enough to be made revenue minister in the Devendra Fadnavis government, only to be dropped in 2016 after a judicial enquiry was instituted against him for corruption in a land deal. Nothing was heard of the enquiry since then.

“Fadnavis ruined my life,” said Khadse before jumping ship. This is an astonishing charge for someone of his seniority to make, that too, publicly. “Khadse will now make it his mission to destroy Fadnavis,” predicted a senior Congress leader. “We wanted him... But he preferred to go with the NCP.”  Former Chief Minister Ashok Chavan had made an open offer to Khadse to join the Congress at a time and place of his choosing.

What makes Khadse so important? At the heart of it, is caste. He belongs to the Other Backward Class (OBC) — a community called Leva Patil. In the Brahmin-influenced BJP, OBCs have often complained of domination by upper castes. Another OBC leader, Gopinath Munde has often been cited by the community as a promising leader, but never allowed to rise by Nitin Gadkari, for example. Munde’s daughter Pankaja is having a running battle with Fadnavis, another Brahmin, so clearly existing caste tensions continue to reign.

The Leva Patil community is especially powerful in north Maharashtra areas of Jalgaon, Dhule, Nandurbar, and Nasik. The Congress has zero support there. The NCP has managed to build up a small body of influence: It has one MLA. But it is Shiv Sena that has cause to worry: Serving water supplies minister and senior Sena leader Gulabrao Patil belongs to Jalgaon and is less than thrilled that Khadse has joined the NCP. This enclave in north Maharashtra sends 11-15 MLAs to the Assembly; someone who has sway in that area can influence the party’s choice of chief minister.

“Fadnavis saw Khadse as a competitor and set out to finish him,” said a Congress leader. The systematic build-up of a community rival, Girish Mahajan, was the first step in Fadnavis’s strategy. Mahajan was irrigation minister in the Fadnavis government, but was known as Fadnavis’s right-hand man. The two got together to prevent Khadse rising further but could not stop him from pushing his representative (his daughter-in-law) for the Lok Sabha election. It seems though Khadse has jumped ship, his daughter-in-law will stay in the BJP.

The crucial question now is how will Khadse get on with the Shiv Sena and how he will be deployed to target Fadnavis and the BJP. To enter the Assembly, someone will have to be made to resign from Khadse’s area — because he has no presence outside north Maharashtra. That is a tall order. The other option is to get him to become a nominated member of the Legislative Council for which elections are due. But here, Governor B S Koshiyari is putting up stiff resistance. He says the so-called Governor’s quota of nominated MLCs must comprise bonafide leaders in the field of art, music, and social work. This category cannot be stuffed with politicians.

The next problem is a ministership. In the strictly ordained quotas for constituents of the Aghadi — the Sena-led alliance that rules Maharashtra — the NCP’s quote of ministerships is already full. Khadse wants the agriculture portfolio, which is currently with the Sena.

Could Khadse’s exit trigger a flood of other exits? Hard to say but former finance minister in the Fadnavis government Sudhir Mungantiwar said: “The party should analyse what led Khadse to take such a step.” This much is clear: Khadse is going to be a headache for Fadnavis.

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