Divide deepens between NCP, Congress in Maharashtra as Pawar and Vikhe Patil clans' old feud takes centrestage

Two feuding Maratha clans, an alliance of convenience, filial bonds and political loyalties: outcome of Lok Sabha polls in one small constituency is inconsequential for battle 2019, but a generous helping of these elements makes the Lok Sabha election in Ahmednagar seat a riveting contest.

Old fault lines between the Vikhe Patils of Ahmednagar and Sharad Pawar of Pune district have resurfaced over decades-old animosities, but at stake here is the Congress-NCP alliance in Maharashtra.

The alliance was decimated by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2014 elections, but till recently, it seemed confident of bouncing back in the state. However, the tug-of-war between the two powerful clans in the sugar belt has now left the Congress red-faced and its internal rifts exposed.

Divide deepens between NCP, Congress in Maharashtra as Pawar and Vikhe Patil clans old feud takes centrestage

File photo of Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil. PTI

Discords out in the open

News of rising discords over seat-sharing formula — and the Ahmednagar seat in particular — was trickling in since December. However, the hostilities came out in the open when Congress relented the Vikhe Patils' traditional bastion to NCP, following which Sujay Vikhe Patil, son of the leader of the opposition in the state assembly Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, joined the BJP. The NCP plans to field party legislator Arun Jagtap from the constituency.

This not only left the Congress embarrassed but also exposed the factionalism rife within its Maharashtra unit as another party leader (known to be of anti-Vikhe Patil camp) Balasaheb Thorat virtually questioned Radhakrishna's loyalty towards the Congress party after his son joined BJP. Talking to PTI at Sangamner, 80 kilometres from Ahmednagar, Thorat said the Vikhe Patil family has been associated with the Congress for the last five decades and the party has treated its members well. However, the Vikhe Patils have "betrayed" the Congress at a crucial time, Thorat said.

Meanwhile, a shouting match between Thorat and Radhakrishna at the Congress core committee meeting was reported in the media. While Thorat sought a clarification from Radhakrishna over Sujay joining BJP, the latter questioned whether the former is larger than the party leadership to question him.

On the other hand, IANS reported that Sujay has practically fought a war with the Vikhe Patil family; he admitted publicly on Tuesday that his father Radhakrishna is not even on speaking terms with him currently after he joined the BJP. This created a furore in Congress circles with demands for his (father's) resignation from some quarters.

In the midst of all this, NCP chief Sharad Pawar added salt to injury when he raked up the decades-old rivalry between the two clans and commented on Radhakrishna's father Balasaheb Vikhe Patil. And unsurprisingly, both Radhakrishna and Sujay fretted and fumed, and blamed the latter's jump to BJP on Pawar's 'unwarranted' and 'hurtful words' with Radhakrishna also using the matter to wriggle out of a situation where he might have had to campaign against his own son.

"Sharad Pawar's comment against my father was unwarranted and uncalled for.... He should have stuck to alliance dharma and avoided such words. My father is not even alive now... If Pawar despises my family so much, I would rather not campaign for the NCP candidate from Ahmednagar," he said.

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had earlier said that he will recommend Sujay's name for Ahmednagar constituency to BJP top brass.

Meanwhile, Pawar expressed dismay at the development and said that he can't "fulfil demands of children from other families".

"I can look after my house. How can I fulfil the demands of children from other families? If anyone is changing the route and think that the journey will be smooth, then I have nothing but well wishes," Pawar told reporters on Tuesday evening.

However, Pawar's statement too should not be taken at face value as there are several reports indicating there were long parlays held to convince the NCP supremo to exchange the Ahmednagar seat with Congress. But the NCP chief dug his heels even as NCP had lost two elections on a trot in the constituency. The parties even toyed with the idea of fielding Sujay on NCP ticket — with Pawar's nephew Ajit Pawar visiting Vikhe Patils' sugar mill to meet Sujay — but talks ultimately fell through.

The senior Vikhe Patil, Radhakrishna, had even made an appeal to Pawar to consider Sujay as his grandson, but Ajit had announced that "there was no question of the NCP relinquishing the Ahmednagar seat to the Congress".

File image of NCP chief Sharad Pawar. PTI

File image of NCP chief Sharad Pawar. PTI

The decades-old rivalry

Pawar recently alluded to how he ensured the defeat of Balasaheb Vikhe Patil (in an election in the early 1990s) and that he also remembered the lawsuit the late Congress leader filed against him. And this was the time when the seeds of political rivalry between the Vikhe Patil and Pawar clans were actually sown: two generations ago.

Sujay’s grandfather Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, a recipient of Padma Bhushan award, was a heavyweight Maharashtra state Congress leader, an eight-time MP, a former Union minister of state and a Sugar baron — in fact, the whole rivalry partly stems from the ambition to control the sugarcane cooperative societies, but more on that later.

In short, Balasaheb Vikhe Patil was already a political hotshot when Pawar was taking his first political steps in Congress under the guidance of YB Chavan. Balasaheb vowed unwavering loyalty to late Shankarrao Chavan, whose politics centred around curbing the clout of Vasantdada Patil and Pawar among prosperous sugar cooperatives. This ensured that Pawar and Balasaheb firmly remained on the opposite sides of the political spectrum even when both were within Congress. Neither shied away from frequently sparring in public, while they also continued to cultivate contacts with each others' rivals in the background, particularly in Ahmednagar.

While Pawar promoted anti-Vikhe Patil sugar barons, including Bhausaheb Thorat, Govindrao Adik, Shankarrao Kolhe, Yeshwantrao Gadakh and Appasaheb Rajale, Balasaheb bridged ties with Pawar’s political rivals, including Shankarrao Chavan, AR Antulay, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Gopinath Munde.

As Pawar's sway increased in Congress by the early 1990s, he ensured Balasaheb didn’t get a Lok Sabha ticket, prompting the latter to contest the polls as an Independent. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi then asked Pawar to ensure Balasaheb's defeat in 1991. Pawar had then fielded Gadakh against Balasaheb.

This was perhaps the last straw in open rivalries. The political rivalry translated into a full-blown legal battle and Balasaheb, who lost the 1991 polls, accused Pawar, then Maharashtra chief minister, of corrupt electoral practices to ensure Gadakh's win. The battle reached the Supreme Court, which eventually cleared Pawar of the charges in 1993. But Pawar's voting rights were annulled for the next elections while the case came to its conclusion.

It was this instance that Pawar referred to that reignited the war between the two families in 2019.

Meanwhile, the rivalry easily spilt over to the next generation as well. In 2011, with the Congress government in power in the state, Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Corporation (MERC), controlled by then power minister and Pawar's nephew Ajit took away electricity distribution rights from Mula Pravara Society, an electricity cooperative in Ahmednagar owned by the Vikhe Patil family. The reason given was that it owes the state Rs 2,200 crore, but according to reports, the move was perceived as a continuance of the old family rivalry, Hindustan Times reported.

The bitterness of sugar

It was Balasaheb’s father, Vitthal-Rao Vikhe Patil, who pioneered the cooperative movement amid sugarcane farmers and established the first sugar cooperative factory in Ahmednagar's Loni area in 1951. Pawar, meanwhile, started a sugar factory at Malegaon in western Maharashtra in 1957.

Several rounds on the political chessboard and today Pawar and his NCP dominate the work of around 187 sugar factories (both cooperative-style and privately owned) in the state. Since each cooperative factory has a network of sugarcane farmers as members, controlling it meant access to a captive vote bank and elections to the boards of these units were — and are still — fiercely contested.

And Ahmednagar became a key flashpoint not just because it was by now an ego issue, but also because of its 17 sugar cooperative factories and multiple credit societies, and a massive support base.

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Updated Date: Mar 16, 2019 14:11:58 IST

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