Maharashtra Election Watch: Congress relied on ‘influential’ families and the Maratha votebank — perhaps too much

The party used political families as its ‘operators’ in the state but the strategy has backfired.

ByPrateek Goyal
Maharashtra Election Watch: Congress relied on ‘influential’ families and the Maratha votebank — perhaps too much
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A lot has gone wrong with the Congress in Maharashtra. Factionalism and a lack of leadership have left it adrift, but there are other problems: reliance on “influential families” to oversee its district units and the loss of its Maratha votebank top the list.

So, it’s not entirely surprising that the Congress seems clueless about its strategies for the upcoming Assembly election in Maharashtra. 

It’s a humbling fall for a party that was conceived in Bombay in 1885. A number of leaders during the freedom struggle were from Maharashtra, helping the Congress gain prominence in western India in the pre-Independence era. The Congress developed deep roots, dominating the state’s politics until around 2000. It stayed in power until 2014, after forming an alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party, but is now, arguably, in shambles.

How did it go so wrong?

Using local families as ‘operators’

Maharashtra’s structure of local bodies — gram panchayats and panchayat samitis — dates back to the time of its first chief minister, the Congress grandee Yashwantrao Chavan. For long, the party’s strategy was for Congressmen to occupy top posts in these local bodies and popularise the narrative that the Congress alone could bring them the benefits of government schemes. 

Along the way, the Congress also developed a non-official entity: cooperatives. Cooperative societies were formed for cotton, onions, sugar and other crops, and they took care of everything, from providing seeds to harvesting. All villagers had to do was vote for the party. 

To run these cooperatives and promote the party, the Congress enlisted the families of its influential leaders in the districts. These families set up cooperatives and educational institutions and had almost absolute control, forming the link between the party and the voters in the district. 

This worked well till 1985. Around then, the second generation was in control of these families. Many of them acted as if they “owned” the poorer people in their districts, and the equation inevitably tilted towards exploitation. They also monopolised that level of leadership in the Congress — no one else could infiltrate it. This effectively blocked out other Congress leaders from growing in the districts. 

Consequently, in the 1990 Assembly election, the electorate voted against the Congress for the first time. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena together secured 94 seats in the Assembly, forming a formidable Opposition. In 1995, the vote turned against the Congress again, and the BJP-Sena came to power in Maharashtra for the first time. 

The Congress leadership did nothing to check the growing dominance of these families. It was the beginning of the end.

Sanjiv Barwe, a political commentator who assisted the Congress during the 2019 polls, says this is why the party has a “leadership crisis” in Maharashtra. “The Congress gave power to families who were busy working for themselves instead of the party. The central leadership in Delhi handed control to some 30 political families in the state who were on good terms with Gandhi family. These families are used by the Gandhis as their operators in the state and these operators are no less than oppressors.”

Barwe says it’s “a simple fact” that people fear these operators. “The operators are opportunist in nature, and many of them are showing their true colours by leaving the Congress…The Congress suppressed its activist leaders in favour of them.”

Parimal Maya Sudhakar from the MIT School of Government in Pune points out that while the Congress dominated the state from 1999 to 2014, power remained in the hands of a few political families. “These families were mainly from the sugar belt, they didn’t allow new leaders to develop in the Congress. They didn’t spare even sugarcane farmers during elections: they’d tell them the farmers will be paid only if they vote for the Congress. If the election is not won, the payment is not made. All this backfired badly on the Congress and the NCP too.”

Here’s a rundown of some of these “influential” families.

The Vikhe Patil family, Ahmednagar 

Born in 1901, Vithalrao Vikhe Patil was the founder of the cooperative movement in the Indian sugar industry. His son Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, who died in 2016, was a seven-time MP from Ahmednagar. Balasaheb left the Congress for the Shiv Sena, on whose ticket he won the 1998 Lok Sabha and became a Union minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, before rejoining the Congress in 2004.

Balasaheb’s son Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil remained a Congressman for most of his political career. In 1995, he joined his father in defecting from the party when the BJP-Shiv Sena came to power and was made a state minister. In 1999, Radhakrishna returned to the Congress after the BJP-Shiv Sena lost the Assembly election. Radhakrishna was a minister in the governments of both Ashok Chavan and Prithviraj Chavan. He was Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Assembly when his son Sujay was given a BJP ticket for the Lok Sabha polls. Radhakrishna promptly quit the Congress and joined the BJP in July 2019, and is currently minister of housing of Maharashtra.

While the Congress installed the Vikhe Patil family as its “operator” in Ahmednagar, its members have a history of joining the government in power. The Congress in Ahmednagar is, as a result, in shambles.

The Vasantdada Patil family, Sangli 

Most members of the Vasantdada Patil family have held a political position at some point. The family head, Vasantrao Banduji “Vasantdada” Patil, was the Congress chief minister of Maharashtra from 1977 to ’78 and from 1983 to ’85. He was also instrumental in setting up sugar cooperatives in Sangli. 

Vasantdada’s wife, Shalini Patil, was an MP and held ministerial positions in the Congress government in the 1980s. When Sharad Pawar left the Congress, she joined the NCP in 1999 but was expelled in 2006 for her anti-reservation stance. Shalini formed her own party, the Krantisena Maharashtra, but finally returned to the Congress.

The couple’s son Prakash Patil, who died in 2005, was a four-time Congress MP. His son Pratik Patil was also a Congress MP and Union minister who was defeated by the BJP in Sangli in 2014. However, Pratik Patil left the Congress before the 2019 polls when the Sangli seat — considered a traditional bastion for the Congress — was given to the Swabhimani Shetkari Paksha as part of a seat-sharing deal between the Congress, the NCP and other partners in the UPA alliance.

The Mohite Patil family, Solapur 

Shankarrao Mohite-Patil was a staunch Congress leader and a member of the Bombay State Legislative Assembly from 1952-60. He was a four-time MLA from Akluj seat in Solapur district. 

His son, Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, was a Congress MLA until 1999, when he joined the NCP. Vijaysinh was also the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra from 2003 to 2005 during the Congress-NCP government, and held various ministerial positions. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Vijaysinh won on an NCP ticket. 

Vijaysing’s son Ranjitsinh Mohite-Patil is a former Rajya Sabha MP from the NCP and the first president of the Nationalist Youth Congress. When the NCP denied him a Lok Sabha ticket before for the 2019 election, he joined the BJP. It was a decision supported by Vijaysinh, who shared a dias with PM Modi in April 2019, deserte his own party, and helped the BJP win the Madha seat in Solapur.

The Chavan family, Nanded

Shankarrao Chavan was a Congress leader and two-time chief minister of Maharashtra. He was India’s finance minister and home minister as well. His son Ashok Chavan served as chief minister and was elected as a Congress MP from Nanded in 2014, but lost the seat to the BJP in 2019.

The Chavan family, Karad

Born in 1916, Dajisaheb Chavan was a Congressman and three-time MP from Karad. He served as a minister in the governments of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. His wife Premala Chavan was a four-time Congress MP and contested the seat of Karad after her husband’s death in 1973. 

The couple’s son is Prithviraj Chavan, chief minister of Maharashtra from 2010 to 2014 and a former minister in the Manmohan Singh government.

The Patil family, Osmanabad

Family head Padamsinh Patil is an eight-time MLA from Osmanabad. Four of these victories were on a Congress ticket until he joined the NCP in 1999. Considered close to Sharad Pawar, Patil won the 2009 Lok Sabha polls for the NCP. His son Ranajagjit Sinh Patil was an NCP MLA and served as a minister in the Congress-NCP government.  

Both father and son joined the BJP in August 2019.

This list isn’t exhaustive. There are also the families of Congress stalwarts like Shankarrao Kolhe, Shankarrao Kale, Tatyasaheb Kore, Vilasrao Deshmukh and Balasaheb Thorat, not to mention Congress-turned-NCP leader Sharad Pawar. 

Twenty years ago, Marathi journalist Varunraj Bhide wrote that 100 Marathi families dominated the political scene in the state. The families ran cooperatives and were related to each other. 

It’s a “dynasty” at all levels.

The gain and loss of the Maratha votebank

In the pre-Independence years, the Congress had a sizeable number of leaders from different communities. With the formation of the Maharashtra state in 1960, their importance began to fade. 

According to veteran political analyst and activist Kumar Saptrishi, in those days, many Brahmanetar leaders — leaders of an anti-Brahmin movement in the state — joined the Congress. While prominent Brahmanetar leaders like Keshavrao Jedhe “softened” in their stance after joining the Congress, others like Bhausaheb Hiray were still very vocal against Brahmins.

“A controversial statement on making women of the Brahmin community wash their dhotis — this led to a full-stop on Hiray’s political aspirations,” explains Saptrishi. “It led to the rise of [Yashwantrao] Chavan.” 

Morarji Desai, the tallest leader in the Congress at the time, “sidelined” Hiray, Saptrishi says. “He promoted Chavan in the party. After the formation of Maharashtra state, Chavan garnered the full-fledged support of the Maratha community to the Congress, using his politics of ‘Yashwantniti’.”

And so, the Maratha community became the Congress’s identity in Maharashtra. Chavan was popular with the public for his welfare politics. The political mentor of Sharad Pawar, Chavan brought the Marathas in as a loyal votebank and they stayed that way — until the Namantar Andolan began in the 1970s.

The Namantar Andolan, an agitation by Dalits in Maharashtra, started in 1977 and continued till 1994. The movement’s first demand — to rename the Marathwada University to Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar University — was made by Marathwada Republican Vidyarthi Sangh in 1974. They wrote a letter to the then chief minister Vasantrao Naik to rename one of the two universities in Aurangabad and Parbhani on the name of Dr BR Ambedkar. In 1977, a resolution was taken by Dalit leaders in a meeting at Mahad (where Ambedkar started a movement in 1927 to allow Dalits to use water from public water bodies)  and a memorandum was submitted by them to then chief minister Vasantdada Patil. 

As the movement gained momentum, a resolution was finally passed in July 1978 in the State Assembly to rename the university. In response, large-scale riots broke out against Dalits in areas of Marathwada. The violence was carried out by upper caste groups belonging to the Maratha community. The resolution was put on hold by the erstwhile Progressive Democratic Front (PDF) government led by Sharad Pawar.

The movement and its demands left the Marathas angered. They began to drift from the Congress towards the Shiv Sena, helping the party gain strength in Marathwada. It was the first departure of these traditional Congress voters in the state. The university itself was only renamed in 1994, during the rule of Sharad Pawar. 

The influence of Sharad Pawar

The Congress has produced several leaders over the decades in Maharashtra, but few have come close to the stature of Sharad Pawar. Pawar himself had the Congress divided: those who supported him and those actively against him. 

In 1977, the Congress split into two factions: the Congress (U) and Congress (I) which was headed by Indira Gandhi. In Maharashtra, the two parties formed an alliance and established a government under Vasantdada Patil, who was with the Congress (U). Pawar was a member of the Congress (U) at the time, but his mentor, Yashwantrao Chavan, was unhappy with the state government. So in 1978, Pawar broke away from the Congress (U) and formed a coalition government with the Janata Party: the PDF government. 

In February 1980, Indira Gandhi came back to power and the PDF government was dissolved. In 1981, Pawar became the president of the Congress (U), now known as the Congress (Socialist). The party formed a formidable opposition to the Congress until Pawar returned to the Congress in 1988. Yet his return created a vacuum in the Opposition: a vacuum that the BJP and Shiv Sena filled.

Parimal Maya Sudhakar, from the MIT School of Government in Pune, says the Congress was always a “divided house”. “There were two groups: one with Pawar and one against. This hampered the governance and organisation of the Congress in Maharashtra. His exit from the Congress also weakened it. When he formed the NCP, prominent leaders left the Congress to join it. In their absence, smaller leaders like Sushil Kumar Shinde and Prithviraj Chavan were promoted but they weren’t capable enough to consolidate the party.”

Sudhakar adds: “Although Vilasrao Deshmukh was a reputed leader in that bunch, no one was as tall as Pawar to replace him.”

Interestingly, Indira Gandhi always made sure to keep changing the Congress chief ministers in Maharashtra — she didn’t want anyone to become powerful. Only Pawar managed it. 

Other factors

Apart from the Namanatar Andolan, issues like Ram Mandir and the Shah Bano case hit the Congress hard in Maharashtra. This served to further consolidate the positions of the BJP and the Shiv Sena. 

The BJP in Maharashtra also used constituency-wise data on Congress voters to build their strategies. Since Marathas and Adivasis voted for the Congress, the BJP targeted OBC voters, who were also numerically strong. 

“The BJP started this form of ‘social channelising’ in 1977,” explains Sudhakar. “Within 10 years, they managed to garner votes by constantly networking and raising community issues in the Assembly. They managed to pull SC votes too, and Adivasis. The Congress was unable to counter this strategy.”

Instead, the Congress laboured on with its politics of families and cooperatives. Then the 90s happened, and urbanisation hit Maharashtra on a large scale. Younger generations in urban and semi-urban areas were unaffected by the Congress and the NCP, and, to an extent, shifted largely to the BJP and the Shiv Sena. Sudhakar says the Congress didn’t focus on these areas, which hit their vote percentages.

“They had loyal voters in rural areas of their constituencies. They’d promise them jobs at sugar cooperatives and educational institutions. But as this went up a generation or two, the new generation had a different mindset. They weren’t influenced by these strategies,” he says.

There’s also been a surprising lack of development within the party itself. Sudhakar says Maharashtra’s Congress leaders live in “an old era”, worried only about winning elections. “They’ve lost their traditional votebanks and have to develop new ones: government servants, women, youth. To gather their support, the Congress should raise their issues. But it still believes it’ll win the elections on the basis of anti-incumbency.”

A look at the numbers

There’s been a marked decrease of Congress-held seats in the Lok Sabha and Maharashtra Assembly.

Government data shows the Congress won 40 Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra in 1952. In 2009, it won 17. Over this period, its vote share declined from 50.1 per cent to 17 per cent. In the 2014 elections, it won two seats. In 2019, it won one out of 48 seats in the state.

In the Assembly elections, the Congress won 269 seats in 1952 and only 82 seats in 2009. The vote share declined from 50 per cent to 21.01 per cent. In 2014, the party won 42 seats out of 288.

According to research by political analyst Rajeshwari Deshpande, until 1996, around 40 per cent of Maratha voters voted for the Congress. In 2004, this declined to 12 per cent. Other votebanks moved away too: the percentage of the Congress’s Muslim voters declined from 46 per cent to 36 per cent in the same time period.

This is the second story in a series on the Congress party’s troubles in Maharashtra.

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