Maharashtra Election Watch: How the Congress subedars of Ahmednagar brought about its downfall

They acquired power and wealth with the grand old party’s help, only to abandon it for greener pastures.

ByPrateek Goyal
Maharashtra Election Watch: How the Congress subedars of Ahmednagar brought about its downfall
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The Congress’s dilapidated office in Tamboliwada area of Ahmednagar could stand as a monument to its decline in Maharashtra. Once the party’s command centre in a region which played a significant role in its politics at the national level, the building isn’t even registered in the organisation’s name anymore. The local party unit works out of the personal office of Satyajeet Tambe, president of the Maharashtra Youth Congress. This is of a pattern: less than two weeks from the Assembly election on October 21, there isn’t even an active District Congress Committee.

The key reasons for the grand old party’s decline in Ahmednagar are the same as elsewhere in the state: nepotism, dynastic politics, and a lack of leadership. 

There was a time when the Ahmednagar Congress produced heavyweight leaders like Senapati Bapat, Balasaheb Bharde, Rao Saheb Patwardhan, Abasaheb Nimbalkar and Bhausaheb Firodia. That time is long past. The few prominent leaders who did emerge in the last few decades such as Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil eventually left the party. 

Consequently, the party’s electoral fortunes have dwindled. In the 1990 election, the Congress won eight of the 13 Assembly segments in Ahmednagar district. Five years later, the party added two more seats to its tally but lost the election to the alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena. Soon after, the party suffered a setback when senior leader Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, unwilling to stay out of power, left for the Sena along with his son Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil. Balasaheb went on to win Ahmednagar for the Sena in the 1998 Lok Sabha election — the first time the Congress lost the constituency.

Sanjay Gandhi and his wife Menaka Gandhi at a family planning camp organised by the Ahmednagar Congress in the 1970s.

Then came the split which led to the formation of the Nationalist Congress Party in 1999. It was a crushing blow from which the Congress never recovered. In that year’s election, the grand old party was reduced to three seats while the NCP got four. The two parties, though, came together to form a coalition government. Seeing power change hands again, Radhakrishna, who had contested the election on the Sena’s ticket, returned to the Congress.

In the 2004 election — by when Ahmednagar district’s map had been redrawn to have 12 constituencies — the Congress won four seats. Five years later, it won three, only to see two of its legislators jump ship. Radhkrishna, who had held the Shirdi Assembly seat since 1995, joined the BJP while Bhausaheb Kamble left for the Sena.

Ahmednagar district comprises two Lok Sabha constituencies. Until 2008, they were Ahmednagar and Kopargaon. Now, following the 2008 delimitation, they are Shirdi and Ahmednagar. The Congress won every election to both seats until 1996, when it lost Kopargaon to the BJP. Two years later, Prasad Tanpure took the seat back for the Congress, only to lose it to Balasaheb, contesting for the Sena, in 1999. The previous year, Balasaheb had taken the Ahmednagar parliamentary seat from the Congress. The grand old party has not won it since. It has had no luck in Shirdi either. 

The dilapidated Congress office in Tamboliwada.

Blighted by nepotism

Shrikant Bedekar, a teacher popularly known as “Bedekar Sir” in Ahmednagar, is a devoted Congressman. He has been with the party for some 48 years, but has never been as despondent about its future. He believes the Congress has become “a party of opportunists” and there is no place for sincere workers like him.

“I am a follower of Indira Gandhi,” he says. “I joined politics to do social work and not to make it a business. The central leadership of the party didn’t pay any attention to the development of the organisation for many years. Instead of expanding the organisation, they put power into the hands of a few political families who now think themselves to be bigger than the party.”

Bedekar, who was the state Youth Congress chief for over a decade and held several posts in the Ahmednagar Congress, claims that a culture of nepotism and casteism has ruined the Congress in Maharashtra. “There was a time when cabinet ministers were chosen every term from Ahmednagar. Now, we only have a corporator in the local municipal corporation. Till 1970, the Congress used to win all Assembly seats in Ahmednagar but in 2014 we won only three seats and then of the MLAs joined the BJP and the Shiv Sena for political benefit.”

Veteran Congressman Shrikant Bedekar at his home in Ahmednagar.

The party has also seen its base shrink over the years. “In the 1960s, the Congress had leaders from all castes and communities. Then leaders from the Maratha community took control and they did not allow people from other communities to rise to the top rungs. Because of this, Congress members from other communities began joining the BJP and the Shiv Sena. This led to those communities collectively voting against the Congress which in the long run proved damaging.”

In place of a broad-based organisation, Bedekar bemoans, “the Congress developed syndicates of families that were power-hungry”. “All of them have moved to greener pastures in these crucial times because the party is not in power,” he says. “The party needs to focus on strengthening the organisation rather than just winning elections. Instead of caring about only its big political families, the high command should have listened to the party workers on the ground.”

Shrikant Bedekar addresses Congress workers in presence of Sharad Pawar, in Tamboliwada.

Brijlal Sarda, a prominent industrialist in Ahmednagar, is a former Congressmen. His family had been associated with the Congress since the beginning of the 20th century, and he worked closely with party grandees Rajeev Gandhi, Anand Sharma, Gulam Nabi Azad, in both the state and Delhi. In 2014, however, he left the party for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. A year ago, he was invited by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to join the BJP, and he accepted the offer.

“For generations, my family had worked for the Congress party,” he says, explaining his decision to quit. “Indira Gandhi and Rajeev Gandhi were fantastic. The Congress started degrading after the death of Rajeev Gandhi. In Maharashtra, Congress didn’t pay due importance to the people who worked for it. Groupism and nepotism was all over because of which people of certain caste were promoted by the state leaders. Central and state leaderships were hardly interested in knowing the problems of the workers. The party gave more importance to political families than its workers and a subedari system was developed.”

Subedars of Congress

In Ahmednagar as elsewhere in Maharashtra, the Congress leadership over the years promoted the families of its influential leaders as the party’s operators. They gained immense power and wealth running sugar cooperatives and educational institutions. As Congressmen are fond of saying, these families were akin to the Mughal subedars who ran the provinces for the empire. The most prominent of these was the Vikhe Patil family, which flourished while the Congress was in power, gaining enormous clout in the region which they used to prevent the emergence of leaders who could challenge them.

The Vikhe Patils, though, were more loyal to power than to the Congress. In 1995, as the Hindutva coalition of the BJP and the Shiv Sena replaced the Congress in power, Balasaheb Vikhe Patil and Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil promptly joined the Sena. While the father was made a central minister under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his son got a state ministership.

Congress workers in Ahmednagar rally in support of Indira Gandhi after the Emergency.

In 1999, as the Hindutva coalition lost the election, Radhkrishna returned to the Congress. His father followed suit five years later, when Vajpayee government was voted out.

Radhakrishna disassociated from the Congress again earlier this year when his son Sujay Vikhe Patil lost out on a Lok Sabha ticket from Ahmednagar because of the party’s seat-sharing pact with the NCP. Sujay got the BJP’s ticket and won the election. A few months later, Radhakrishna too joined the BJP and was made a minister in the Devendra Fadnavis government.

The family dominates sugar cooperatives in the region and runs various educational institutions under the banner of the Pravara Education Society. The institutions are estimated to employ over 50,000 people and they help the family during elections.

Vijay Balasaheb Thorat, the chief of the Maharashtra Congress, hails from a family that has significant clout in Sangamner, Ahmednagar. The Thorat family runs sugar cooperatives and educational institutions under the Amrut Group and Amrutvahini, respectively. Vijay is the only Congress legislator from Ahmednagar, representing Sangamner for the seventh term. His father, Bhausaheb Thorat, a freedom fighter who had joined the Congress at the instance of Yashwantrao Chavan, was an MLA from Sangamner as well.

“The Congress has developed the culture of courtiers,” Girish Kulkarni, a social activist and political commentator based in Ahmednagar, says. “The people who religiously work for the Congress in villages or towns don’t get importance in the party. But if someone goes to the circuit house wearing starched white kurta-pyjama to welcome some Congress leader, he will get considerable attention from party leaders. This system has been going on for many decades. Political families like the Vikhe Patils, Thorats appoint people close to them in key positions and prevent the rise of other leaders. When such subedars quit the party, their courtiers follow, leaving the party in a mess.”

Maharashtra’s first chief minister, Yashwantrao Chavan, with Shrikant Bedekar and other Congress workers in Ahmednagar.

What complicates the problem is that in Ahmednagar, every party has a political family and they are related to each other. They help each other win elections, not worrying about which party they represent, says Kulkarni. The Vikhe Patils, Thorats, Gadhats, Kolhes, Kales, Jagtaps, Nagodes, Aadiks, Ghules, Tanpures, Pichads and Shindes are among the families that dominate Ahamednagar and have members in the BJP, Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena.

So strong is this nexus that when Sujay Vikhe Patil procured a BJP ticket to contest against the Congress-NCP alliance, District Congress Committee president, Karan Sasane, refused to campaign against him, forcing the party to dissolve the committee. 

“People in charge, appointed by the All India Congress Committee, hardly interact with the party’s workers in towns and villages. They come and meet senior leaders in Mumbai and go back to Delhi,” says Deep Chauhan, chief of the Ahmednagar City Congress. “Because of this they don’t know the ground situation, and that helps the political families dominate. Elections will come and go, but I think the party should focus more on organisation, otherwise we will be finished forever.”

Mayur Patole, general secretary of the Youth Congress, Ahmednagar, agrees. “The Vikhe Patil family was given absolute power by the state and central leaderships and they took undue advantage of this power,” he claims. “They sidelined the Congress workers and promoted people close to them. This continued for so many years and when they left all those people left with him.”

Ganesh Bhosale, secretary of the Youth Congress, Ahmednagar, rued, “Big leaders think the party is there because of them.  The party ignores their arrogance because of their political influence. In the end, such leaders do more harm to the party than good.”

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

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