In the 20th year of its formation, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) seems to be falling apart. In the present environment, defections are commonplace from opposition parties to the ruling party, like rats leaving a sinking ship. Even the State unit of the Congress in Maharashtra saw two high-profile defections during the last Lok Sabha election when sugar strongman Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and Harshvardhan Patil joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). There were other defections from among mid-level functionaries too. But what makes the defections from the NCP notable is not just the number of people but the number of senior leaders who are jumping ship.
Those who have quit the NCP so far are former Ministers Dr Padamsinh Patil and Madhukar Pichad, Bhaskar Jadhav and Jaidutt Kshirsagar (who is now a Cabinet Minister in the Devendra Fadnavis government), former Deputy Chief Minister Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil and his son Ranjitsinh, the gangster Arun Gawli’s nephew Sachin Ahir, and the president of the NCP’s Mumbai unit Ganesh Naik, who ruled Navi Mumbai with an iron fist. Chitra Wagh, who headed the women’s unit of the party, former MP Nivedita Mane and MLA Dilip Sopal are also among many others who have deserted the NCP.
The defections that raised eyebrows were those of Dr Padamsinh Patil and his son Ranajagitsinh Patil. Along with Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil and Madhukar Pichad, Dr Patil was one of the pillars of the NCP in Maharashtra. His loyalty to NCP supremo Sharad Pawar was never in question and it is understood that this went beyond the two men being related by marriage (Padamsinh Patil’s sister is married to Sharad Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar). Dr Padamsinh Patil was a confidant of Pawar.
Pichad too was close to Sharad Pawar and indeed owed to him his rise as a tribal leader. Pawar selected him to lead the opposition in 1995 when the Shiv Sena-BJP first came to power.
The party’s Member of Parliament from Satara, Udayanraje Bhonsle, joined the BJP in early September. Another stalwart, Ramraje Naik Nimbalkar, is expected to leave the party and join the Shiv Sena soon. Former Sena man Chhagan Bhujbal, who defected to the NCP, much to Bal Thackeray’s rage, is rumoured to be yearning to go back to the Sena along with his son Pankaj and nephew Sameer. Despite his status as an Other Backward Class (OBC) leader, it is doubtful whether his parent party will want him and his brood back, given that Bhujbal and Sameer are both facing serious corruption charges in the multi-crore Maharashtra Sadan money laundering scam. Both are currently out on bail.
Why is there such an exodus from a party that is led by a well-established politician like Sharad Pawar? A BJP official mockingly dismisses it as “greed for power and the realisation that the NCP will not take them anywhere”. While this may be so, the comment is also an interesting insight into the BJP’s change in attitude. For a party that used to brag about having only committed cadre, it is quite a revelation that it is admitting people on the basis of “greed for power”.
Behind the defections lies the simple explanation of self-preservation. The political calibre of the defectors is undoubtedly high. They have been politicians for decades and have carved out fiefdoms that they have ruled over. It has been a mutually beneficial relationship for the individuals and for the party. But entire swathes of the State that were once ruled by the Congress and the NCP slowly yielded to the relentless assault of the BJP and the Sena. It was a simple war strategy the BJP-Sena adopted. Bastions that once stood back to back were made to feel exposed and vulnerable.
Unspoken threats loomed over them—for instance, irregularities in their sugar cooperatives or in the cooperative banks they controlled. With less and less access to power, it became a matter of survival for the NCP men to ally with the party in power. Former Congress leader Harshvardhan Patil said as much, albeit in a convoluted manner, when he quit the Congress and joined the BJP. He said he needed to protect the interests of the people he represented.
Other reasons for leaders leaving the NCP varied with individuals. For example, Sachin Ahir, who quit before the Lok Sabha election and joined the Shiv Sena, did so because he felt that he was being sidelined within the party. Ahir had been with the NCP ever since its inception in 1999. He was defeated in the 2014 Assembly election but continued to head the Mumbai unit of the NCP. He apparently quit amid rumours that he was to be replaced.
For most of its 20 years of existence, the NCP has known power. The party, which was formed on June 10, 1999, tasted success within four months of its creation. In the elections held that year in Maharashtra, the Narayan Rane-led Sena-BJP government was ousted by the Congress and the NCP which came together for a post-election alliance. The Congress won 75 of the 288 seats and the NCP won 58 seats with a 22.6 per cent vote share. In the following elections of 2004 and 2009, the Congress and the NCP joined forces and ruled the State until 2014 when it fell for the second time to saffron forces.
But 2014 was a turning point in the fortunes of the Congress and the NCP. The Lok Sabha seats won by the NCP fell to four and it won a mere 14 Assembly seats. Maharashtra fell to the BJP-Sena and the Devendra Fadnavis government took over. The trickle of workers and mid-level leaders leaving the NCP began at that time and peaked in 2019.
As of now the party has lost its hold on western Maharashtra, Marathas and OBCs and Marathwada. When the NCP was formed, it was based on a reaction rather than an ideology. Sharad Pawar also built his party by openly poaching from other parties. His focus was also Maratha politics which, with the rise of other communities, was a dated strategy as it automatically (though not intentionally) alienated OBCs, the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and Muslims.
As for the future of the Congress-NCP combine, the two have decided to contest the upcoming Assembly elections together. At a press conference on September 10, former Chief Minister and senior Congress leader Prithviraj Chavan said his party and the NCP had come to an agreement to contest between 123 and 125 seats each in the Assembly elections, which are to be held in a single phase on October 21. He said: “As per our discussions till now, the Congress is going to contest somewhere between 123 and 125 seats, while an equal number of seats will be contested by the NCP. The discussions for about 40 seats are yet to take place.”
The decision is probably influenced by the memory of the 2014 election when the two parties contested separately, thereby splitting votes. Besides, in the recent Lok Sabha election, the NCP won four seats while the Congress secured only one. Tying up with other parties for electoral alliances is a matter still to be thrashed out. The desperate state of the big parties is seen in their reaching out to the Samajwadi Party, which has a negligible presence in the State. The Congress has also reached out to the Swabhimani Paksha, a small regional party with a minimal sphere of influence.
A tie-up with the more organised and wider vote bank of Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) would certainly benefit the Congress-NCP combine, but Ambedkar has steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the NCP. Besides, the VBA has problems of its own. Its Lok Sabha alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM) is on the rocks. In any case, if the VBA-AIMIM alliance survives, then the Congress will shy away from it.
A few months ago, there was talk of the Congress and the NCP forming a loose alliance with Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), but the party has been fading away. And while there has been no formal declaration of the MNS staying out of elections, its own leaders have said that they are not ready for an electoral battle at present. Ground reports also show that there are no pre-election preparations like organising cadre or assessing potential seats and candidates.
An informal alliance, with the Congress-NCP benefiting from the MNS’ goodwill, remains a possibility. In the Lok Sabha election, Raj Thackeray extended support to the Congress-NCP by travelling extensively all over the State and addressing rallies in which he urged the crowds to vote against the BJP-Sena. But despite his rhetoric and techno dazzle rallies which were crowd-pullers, the fact remains that the BJP-Sena won 41 of the State’s 48 Lok Sabha seats.
Raj Thackeray, speaking in his forthright fashion, has expressed doubts about his own party as well as the performance capabilities of the Congress-NCP. He said that the economy was bad and his party had to conserve its resources. He also admitted that the saffron alliance was riding high and questioned the strength of the Congress-NCP to take on the ruling parties.
This forthcoming election, like the recent Lok Sabha election, is a reflection of the scattered state of the opposition. Infighting, cantankerous memories of old enmities and a refusal to come together for a larger cause are issues that plague the opposition. The reality is that ruling parties really have no opposition to worry about.
For the BJP and the Sena, all this brings good cheer. The BJP, especially, has had Sharad Pawar in its crosshairs. The Maratha strongman’s confidence in himself, his party and his hold over western Maharashtra have irked the BJP for long. In its opinion, the downfall of both Pawar and his party is long overdue.
But Sharad Pawar has a resilience that has nurtured him and guided him for decades. His recent talks with Sonia Gandhi raised rumours that he was considering a merger of the NCP with the Congress. He scoffed at that.
The very fact that he is planning on fighting the Assembly election is an indication that he may be down but not out. A large part of the problem of the NCP has been that the party is Pawar and Pawar is the party. At 78 years and not in the best of health, he no doubt knows the right direction for his party but is perhaps too tired to lead it.
And while this will ensure his personal political survival and possibly that of his immediate family (though his grandnephew lost in Maval constituency in the 2019 Lok Sabha election), it is uncertain as to whether he will be able to raise his party to the heights it had attained two decades ago.