Patils to Thorats: Maharashtra coop bank with political links finds success

Election officials check EVM and VVPAT machines at a distribution centre at Dadar, ahead of Maharashtra Assembly polls, in Mumbai | Photo: PTI
The Ahmednagar district cooperative bank boasted of Rs 6,902 crore deposits in FY19 with a net profit of Rs 37 crore. The bank claimed to have returned its 9 per cent dividend to member farmer cooperatives, making it one of the efficient among peers in the entire state.

Outside the bank’s expansive chandeliered boardroom – the hall occupies much of the third floor of a glass façade building in the heart of Ahmednagar city – is the memorial plaque with names of its past “chairmen and vice-chairmen”.

The list mentions the who’s who of Maharashtra politics, mostly Congressmen, but also some of those who crossed over to the Nationalist Congress Party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the last two decades.

“The success of the bank, unlike half-a-dozen others which are on the brink of collapse, is that the board of directors leave their political affiliations behind when they enter the boardroom,” said a senior bank official, who did not wish to be named, .

This reason, according to the official has saved the bank, which was founded in 1958, from arbitrary decision making in approving loans and kept liabilities at a minimum. However, the rules of the game have changed of late.

Survival, as evident from the chequered political trajectory of some on the memorial plaque, is the name of the game.

Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil’s is a familiar contemporary name on the plaque. His grandfather Vithalrao Vikhe Patil founded the first sugar cooperative of Asia in Pravara in 1948.

As locals remember, Vithalrao, who had studied a meagre class four, persuaded economist Dhananjay Ramchandra Gadgil to head the cooperative. When the economist dithered, Vithalrao got 300-400 farmers to travel to Pune, a distance of 120 kms, to do a dharna outside his home.

If Vithalrao stayed away from electoral politics, and at least initially tried to make his institutions non-dynastic, it did not last for long. His son Balasaheb Vikhe Patil joined the cooperative, also headed the bank and became a well-known name in state politics.

Balasaheb quit the Congress to join the Shiv Sena in mid-1990s, was the union minister of state for finance in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, and his son Radhakrishna, a minister in the Manohar Joshi-led Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra.

In the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Sujay Vikhe Patil, Radhakrishna’s son, joined the BJP to win from the Ahmednagar Lok Sabha seat. The father followed the son’s footsteps to join the BJP in June, was inducted into the Devendra Fadnavis council of ministers and is now contesting on a BJP ticket from the Shirdi assembly seat in the district, which he had won successively five times for the Congress from 1995 to 2014.

Other names on the bank’s plaque are of Bhausaheb Thorat, whose son Balasaheb is now the state unit chief of the Congress, former Lok Sabha member Yashwantrao Gadakh Patil and several others. According to one research, over 50 per cent of the co-operatives had chairmen or vice-chairmen who have contested or won parliamentary or assembly elections from 1993 onwards.

The bank itself takes care of the money of a web of businesses and people – an estimated 700,000 farmers, 24,000 women self-help groups with over 400,000 members, sugar cooperatives, educational institutions, agriculture price marketing committees and also loans money to sundry employees’ associations. The Ahmednagar district co-operative bank has 287 branches in the district, and 11 extension counters.

The heat on the Maharashtra State Co-operative Bank Ltd (MSC Bank), the apex of the 31 district co-operative banks, is yet to singe the one in Ahmednagar. Already under the scanner are Kapol Co-operative Bank Ltd, City Co-operative Bank Ltd, Karad Janata Sahakari Bank Ltd, Shivam Sahakari Bank Ltd, Youth Development Co-operative Bank Ltd and Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank Ltd (PMC).

If the Vikhe Patils are the co-operative czars of Ahmednagar, the Pawars-led by Sharad Pawar are of the Pune-Baramati area. Several of Pawar's associates in the co-operative movement have joined the the BJP and Shiv Sena in recent years. Of Ahmednagar district’s 12 sitting legislators, 5 are of the BJP, but four of these are turncoats.

The advantage of giving election tickets to politicians with control of co-operatives, say keen watchers of Ahmednagar politics, is their deep pockets. Political parties do not need to fund their elections, instead they contribute to party funds.

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