Congress banks on Nana Patole to revive fortunes in Maharashtra

As the new chief of the State unit, the former BJP MP faces a moribund organisation and rampant factionalism.

The new chief of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC), Nana Patole, who quit as Assembly Speaker last week to take over the State unit, faces a daunting challenge to transform the organisation riven with factionalism.

A particularly uphill task facing Mr. Patole, a former BJP leader from Vidarbha, is to revive the Congress’ sagging fortunes in the sugar belt of western Maharashtra.

Lost youth vote

“In western Maharashtra, the rural areas are the veritable fiefdom of Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), while the BJP is dominant in the urban pockets like Pune city. Importantly, the Congress is no longer able to woo the youth in this region,” says Pune-based political analyst Rajendra Pandharpure.

Other observers point out that despite Mr. Patole’s sterling leadership qualities, he is unlikely to be fully accepted by a core group of Congress workers.

“Being a former BJP legislator and MP from Bhandara-Gondia, Mr. Patole’s loyalty will remain suspect,” said an analyst.

Key urban bodies

Three crucial civic body elections in this region — the Kolhapur Municipal Corporation (KMC) in March this year, and the Pune and the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporations (PMC and PCMC) polls in 2022 — will be the acid test.

According to Mr. Pandharpure, of all the four major parties, the Congress is at a disadvantage in the PMC and the PCMC, which are both currently dominated by the BJP.

“The big challenge in Pune is rebuilding moribund party structures. Unfortunately, in the organisational rejig carried out last week, there are no new faces from Pune. The only young face is that of Praniti Shinde, the Congress MLA from Solapur City Central and the daughter of former Union minister and Chief Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who was been appointed as one of the six MPCC working presidents,” he observed.

Another Pune-based election observer wondered how Mr. Patole’s appointment as new MPCC chief would help heal the endemic factionalism that has been the Congress’ undoing in Pune for the last several years.

“In Pune, the youth have veered towards either the BJP, the NCP or even Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) on occasion. Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar has already set the ball rolling and is seen to be making a strong bid to recapture his erstwhile bastion PCMC from the BJP. In contrast, the Congress is on the back foot. Furthermore, Mr. Patole is from Vidarbha. So, it is doubtful how far he will be able to influence political equations in western Maharashtra,” he observed.

The 2017 civic polls saw the BJP reign supreme in the PMC, which the saffron party swept by winning 100 seats. It also broke the NCP’s stranglehold over the PCMC, winning 77 of the 128 seats.

BJP headstart

Under State BJP chief Chandrakant Patil, the saffron party is already girding up for the civic polls next year, having prepared an agenda and steadily working towards it.

“Mr. Patil has been holding regular meetings on critical urban issues like the pending Pune Metro project, river cleaning, the condition of the local PMT buses, the slum rehabilitation authority (SRA) while BJP Leader of Opposition (LoP) Devendra Fadnavis has his eye firmly on retaining Pune. Furthermore, young leaders like Siddharth Shirole have taken up a number of germane issues during the pandemic, which forced the Uddhav Thackeray government to sit up and take notice,” said a local BJP leader.

He said that while Ajit Pawar regularly visited the city in his capacity as Deputy Chief Minister, erstwhile MPCC chief Balasaheb Thorat, in contrast hardly visited Pune at the height of the pandemic, though the district was among the worst-afflicted in the country.

“Whatever one says, it is undeniable that the BJP’s people connect and response to the pandemic was far more effective that of the Congress’ leadership. Mr. Patil’s office ensured free meals while other amenities were provided through an office started by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) at the Garware School. All this has increased the party’s goodwill,” claimed the BJP leader.

However, countering the naysayers, Pune City Congress general secretary Ramesh Iyer said Mr. Patole had the political nous to galvanise the party rank-and-file and resurrect the party in the region.

“Right from the beginning of his career, Mr. Patole has been an aggressive leader with a strong grip on farmers’ issues. Even when he was in the BJP, he had fought on their behalf with the Prime Minister. Moreover, he has excellent relations with farmer leaders across country and this will be beneficial for the Congress. This in turn will help strengthen the party at the grassroots level,” Mr. Iyer said.

He pointed out that Mr. Patole’s appointment as new MPCC chief would ensure accountability in the setup.

“He [Mr. Patole] is a known taskmaster. Henceforth, all district and city units will have to perform. As soon as he appoints new District Congress Committee presidents, the party will be in full throttle to combat the civic body elections,” said Mr. Iyer.

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