A Hole in BJP’s Maharashtra Umbrella
Senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse quitting the party and joining the NCP is important for politics beyond immediate electoral gains or losses in Maharashtra. It has generated a discourse on the future of OBCs in the saffron party in the state. Its the first visible hole in the BJP’s umbrella of social engineering.
Ekanath Khadse’s resignation from the BJP’s primary membership and his joining the Nationalist Congress Party have created ripples in the politics of the state. The development is not unexpected, yet the actual act of his migration from the BJP to the NCP is bristling with messages that different people are reading per their own convenience.
Eknath Khadse is one of the seniormost leaders in the state politics and was one of the most prominent OBC faces of the BJP in the state. In 2014, when the BJP formed a minority government in Maharashtra, he was one of the contenders for the Chief Minister’s post. However, he had to be content with the Revenue Ministry, traditionally considered as the number two position in the state government. During the period of the dominance of the Congress in the state, the revenue minister was always considered the future Chief Minister. Eknath Khadse, no dount, didn’t give up his ambition to be the Chief Minister while working under Devendra Fadanvis. However, once the Shiv Sena joined the BJP government in the state, Fadanvis’ position as Chief Minister was further strengthened. When allegations of corruptions emerged against Eknath Khadse, Chief Minister Fadanavis instantly ordered an inquiry leading to the former’s resignation from the cabinet in 2016. Since then the BJP has kept Khadse in a limbo, and that resulted in the decline in his political influence.
No one expects wonders from Eknath Khadse for the NCP, except that the NCP only has a minimal presence in Khadse’s presumed stronghold. But his resignation is certainly demoralizing for the BJP cadres. On the other hand, NCP workers and supporters are rejoicing at this development, as they have been at the receiving end of defections of their leaders to the BJP for a long time.
Eknath Khadse belonged to a Leva-Patil community that has about 10 to 12 percent presence in three Lok Sabha constituencies in north Maharashtra and a scattered presence in rest of the state. Once, the community was solidly behind Eknath Khadse as a rising leader in the BJP. He, nonetheless, concentrated power in his family, which forced the second layer of leadership in his community to distance itself from him. Thus, it is unclear how much impact Eknath Khadse’s move would have on local equations. His departure from BJP, however, is important for politics beyond immediate electoral gains or losses.
In the politics of the state, Ekanath Khadase was a rare prominent BJP leader without RSS background. He began his political career in the Congress and smoothly moved to the BJP when the party was not at the centre of the state’s politics. His joining BJP, his rise in the saffron party and the BJP’s rise in state politics were intrinsically linked. After the Emergency, BJP had rigourously begun a social engineering in the state to change its image of an urban Brahmin party. The young leadership of Pramod Mahajan and Gopinath Munde was in charge of BJP’s expansion. While Pramod Mahajan was instrumental in the BJP’s alliance with the Shiv Sena, Gopinath Munde was engineering a new social coalition for BJP. The RSS leadership had realized in the 1970s that the Congress had successfully mobilized Marathas, Muslims, tribals and a good section of Dalit voters in the state, while the other caste groups were politically unorganized. The BJP consciously embarked on a long-drawn journey of mobilizing several intermediate castes, which were later on included in the category of the OBCs.
When the Congress piloted the rise of the Marathas against Brahminical hegemony in the state’s polity, economy and society, the intermediate castes more or less stood with the party as they identified themselves with the cause. However, it was mostly the Marathas who consolidated their socio-political position in the Congress-led politics. Once Brahmins became less significant in the state politics, the BJP turned the tables on the Congress by pitting the OBCs against the Marathas. Ekanath Khadse became one of the important OBC faces for the BJP in its social engineering experiment. His exit has prompted many anti-BJP voices to question the credentials of BJP’s social engineering. Khadse was not alone in the BJP in facing steady marginalization in recent years.
In 1995, when the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance trounced the Congress to form the first-ever government in the state, Gopinath Munde became the deputy Chief Minister. It was due justice to the leader from the Vanjari community who significantly enhanced the social base of the BJP. In the same ministry, Nitin Gadkari, the MLC from Nagpur, was made the minister for Public Works Department. In his four and a half year tenure Home Minister, Munde failed to make a mark as administrator, even though he remined popular amongst the communities that had begun to vote for BJP. On the other hand, Gadkari’s work was most visible in the construction of roads, bridges and flyovers. At the end of the first Shiv Sena-BJP government, Gopinath Munde’s leadership stagnated, while Nitin Gadkari became the star leader. In the subsequent 15 years, when the saffron alliance was on the opposition benches, Munde’s centrality in Maharashtra BJP faded. On the other hand, Pramod Mahajan rose steadily rise in national politics until his shocking murder in 2007. During the same period, Nitin Gadkari’s stature rose in Maharashtra BJP. When the RSS mediated the leadership succession in the BJP post the 2009 Lok Sabha defeat, the party found a new national president in Nitin Gadkari. While Gopinath Munde’s decline in the Maharashtra BJP continued, Gadkari reached the highest position as the national President. Parallel to Gadkari’s entry into national politics, Devendra Fadanvis moved to the leadership position in Maharashtra BJP. Gopinath Munde’s accidental death after the 2014 Lok Sabha election automatically settled the question of leadership in the eventuality of a BJP Chief Minister in the state.
In the aftermath of 2014 assembly election results, all the intra-party challengers of Devendra Fadanvis were side-lined and made powerless. It began with Eknath Khadse, but the fate of Pankaja Munde and Vinod Tawade was not very different. Fadanvis knew that he could be the victim of the anti-Brahminical discourse within the Maratha community. His countermove was to promote Maratha leadership within the BJP and lure away the Maratha leadership from the Congress and the NCP. In the process, the OBC leadership in Maharashtra BJP faced marginalization.
Critics of Fadanvis, however, are not content with such an analysis; they insist that the BJP had been using the OBC leadership in preparing the path for a Brahminical leadership in the state. The meteoric rise of Devendra Fadanvis in the state and Nitin Gadkari in the centre happened on the foundations of the hard work of the OBC leadership, the critics alleged.. Fadanvis and Gadkari are blue-eyed boys of the RSS - that none would deny. But the critics maintained that this favouritism was the result of the need for the RSS to keep its Brahmin support base in the state intact. The core RSS support base in the state would certainly ask, “if not now, then when?” In this context, Eknath Khadse’s departure from the BJP has generated a discourse in Maharashtra’s politics about the future of OBCs in the saffron party. It’s the first visible hole in the Maharashtra BJP’s umbrella of social engineering. It has created a catch-22 situation for the BJP. If it does not promote non-Brahmin and non-Maratha leadership in the state, its social engineering would be in disarray. If the BJP promotes the OBC leadership at the cost of the incumbents, it would face questions from its core support base of Brahmins in the state. Sharad Pawar seems to have hit the nail spot on, once again.