As anticipated for several months, Eknath Khadse has finally quit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). There was suspense whether he would join the Congress or the NCP though it became clear in the past few weeks, as he was in constant touch with top NCP leaders. He did not get desired response from Maharashtra Congress leaders, while NCP chief Sharad Pawar offered him political rehabilitation, it seems. But then is 68-year-old Khadse’s decision to quit the BJP and join the NCP a big deal in state politics?
Khadse, who comes from Jalgaon district of north Maharashtra, was one of the prominent leaders of the BJP in the state. He played a major role in making north Maharashtra a stronghold of the BJP. He was also seen as party’s Other Backward Class (OBC) face along with Gopinath Munde. The position he occupied in the past 15 years shows his importance in the party. He was a minister in the first Sena-BJP government in the state and handled finance, irrigation and higher education department in different period. He was the Opposition leader in the state Assembly between 2009 and 2014. He handled significant departments along with the revenue department in Fadnavis government and was considered number two in the state cabinet after the chief minister, till he had to resign in 2016.
In his five-year tenure as the Opposition leader in state Assembly between 2009 and 2014, Khadse led the attack of the Opposition BJP-Shiv Sena on the then Congress-NCP government. In the run-up to the state elections in 2014, Khadse was part of the state BJP’s core leadership team that included Devendra Fadnavis, Pankaja Munde, Vinod Tawde and Sudhir Mungantiwar.
As the BJP won power in 2014, Khadse was expecting his selection as the chief minister, but the party leadership handpicked Devendra Fadnavis. A fuming Khadse was given revenue and a bouquet of portfolios, but he continued to be bitter about the “injustice meted out to him”. The cold war between him and Fadnavis went on for some time, till Khadse got embroiled in corruption allegations in 2016. He was accused of misusing his position as a revenue minister to help his family in a land deal in Pune.
Though he denied any wrongdoing, Khadse was made to resign and a probe was initiated by the Fadnavis government. Khadse could never return to the cabinet. A judicial probe was conducted in the allegations, but the report was not revealed by the Fadnavis government. Khadse insisted that none of the allegations made against him were proved.
At the same time, Fadnavis encouraged Girish Mahajan, a BJP minister from Khadse’s Jalgaon district. Over the next couple of years, Khadse was cut to size not just in the party, but also in local politics of north Maharashtra. It was during this time that Khadse started expressing unhappiness with the party openly. To make it worse, he was denied Assembly ticket by the BJP in 2019 elections. Instead, his daughter Rohini was fielded. She lost to an independent candidate.
Khadse blamed “party insiders” for her loss. For the past one year, he was expecting rehabilitation by way of nomination to the state legislative Council from the BJP quota, but the party disappointed him. Since then, he was in touch with NCP and Congress leaders.
The recent appointments of other two unhappy leaders in the BJP, Vinod Tawde and Pankaja Munde, as national secretaries of the party, proved to be the last straw on the camel’s back.
With the NCP offering him political rehabilitation, Khadse seems to have taken the decision to join the Pawar-led party. So is it big loss for the BJP and a major gain for the NCP?
For the NCP, Khadse’s entry will be beneficial. The party doesn’t have strong leaders in north Maharashtra, except Chhagan Bhujbal. Khadse’s influence in Jalgaon and other parts of the region could help the party win Assembly seats. He is a prominent leader of Leva Patil, an OBC community, which has strong presence in north Maharashtra. The party hopes to get the support of the community in coming elections. In Khadse, the party also gets a prominent OBC face along with Bhujbal, Jitendra Awhad and Dhananjay Munde. Above all, the NCP would be expecting Khadse to launch an attack on Fadnavis. A veteran BJP leader coming from OBC background targeting Fadnavis and accusing him of sabotaging his career could be politically troublesome for the latter.
As far as the BJP is considered, the party had anticipated that Khadse would quit sooner or later. In the past couple of years it has nurtured Leva Patil leaders such as Jalgaon MP Umesh Patil and district president Suresh Bhole. Besides, it has already encouraged Mahajan, who was a local rival of Khadse. BJP leaders also point out that barring one or two, most party legislators in north Maharashtra are not followers of Khadse. The party is a bit wary of the fallout of Khadse targeting Fadnavis.
“Khadse has blamed only Fadnavis and has avoided criticising anybody else in the party. The reaction of BJP leader Mungantiwar who stressed the need for introspection in the party is an indication that a section within the BJP is not happy with what is happening,” opined political analyst Hemant Desai. “It remains to be seen if this section becomes more vocal now and questions sidelining of leaders such as Khadse, Munde and Tawde under Fadnavis’s leadership,” he added.
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