Maharashtra election: Is the BJP top brass trying to clip Devendra Fadnavis’s wings?

The party’s national leadership is reportedly building up Chandrakant Patil as the alternative to the chief minister.

ByPrateek Goyal
Maharashtra election: Is the BJP top brass trying to clip Devendra Fadnavis’s wings?
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It seems the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mandarins are out to clip Devendra Fadnavis’s wings. The bosses in Delhi are wary of the Maharashtra chief minister’s “growing popularity”, state BJP leaders claimed, and have decided to build a “parallel leadership”. They have even tapped the person for the job: Chandrakant Patil.

This is evident, the BJP leaders reasoned, from the party giving Patil the ticket to contest the October 21 Assembly election from the safe seat of Kothrud in Pune city. 

Patil, chief of the Maharashtra BJP and a powerful minister under Fadnavis, is considered to be close to Union Home Minister Amit Shah. He has never contested a state or parliamentary election before, yet the party fielded him not from his hometown of Kolhapur but Kothrud, sacrificing the popular incumbent Medha Kulkarni and infuriating many of its voters in the Pune constituency.

The BJP top brass had to parachute Patil into a safe seat, the state leaders pointed out, because he cannot afford to lose the election if he has to be a credible challenger to Fadnavis. Moreover, the party needs him to campaign across Maharashtra.

Patil’s ambition to become the chief minister is no secret, the BJP leaders claimed, and Shah is encouraging him in order to keep Fadnavis in check.

“There is a chance that Fadnavis could threaten Amit Shah’s aspiration to become prime minister,” said a BJP leader who asked not to be named for fear of action from the leadership. “So, to counter Fadnavis, preparations are now being made to promote Chandrakant Patil as his alternative. He’s close to Amit Shah. They go way back; Amit Shah’s in-laws are in Kolhapur and Chandrakant Patil has been close to them since his ABVP days. This is why he has become the de facto deputy of the chief minister even though he has never won an election. He was made a member of the Legislative Council in 2014 and appointed a minister two years later.” 

Patil started out in politics in the 1980s with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

More worryingly for Fadnavis, the brewing leadership challenge comes on the heels of a major setback: the Supreme Court early this month ordered that he would have to face trial for failing to provide details of two pending criminal cases in his 2014 election affidavit. 

Patil, apparently, was not keen to contest the election but was persuaded by Shah to take the plunge. “He didn’t want to contest. A long discussion was held, then Shah intervened and asked him to do it,” said a BJP official who was privy to the discussions. “He was given the choice of contesting from Kolhapur South or Pune. He could have won from Kolhapur but might have faced some problems. So, he chose Pune. Then they found the safest seat in Pune because they can’t afford for him to lose.”

This meant dropping the sitting Kothrud legislator Medha Kulkarni, a decision that hasn’t gone down well with the party’s voters. Kulkarni, a former corporator, is popular in Kothrud, particularly among women voters. She took the seat from Shiv Sena heavyweight Chandrakant Mokate in 2014, defeating him by around 64,000 votes. 

Rekha Palaskar, 42, a resident of Ganesh Nagar, said when she was diagnosed with cancer some years ago, Kulkarni helped her pay for the treatment. “You just have to call her and she sees to it that your problem is solved. If you have a problem and it is the middle of the night, you can still call her,” she added. “Would she be given the ticket if one lakh women from our area request the prime minister and the chief minister to do so.”

A group of BJP supporters in Poorgrast Vasahat, Kothrud.

Pooja Salunke, 26, also from Ganesh Nagar, echoed the sentiment. “She has made sure that everyone here benefited from government schemes. Whether it’s the issue of pension for elders, water scarcity or children’s education, she has helped us,” Salunke said of the legislator. “She even helped us sort out family issues. How can the party not give the ticket to such a good leader?” 

Asked what they thought of Patil, Salunke said, “He is an outsider and we don’t know anything about him. But if Medhatai supports him, we’ll vote for him. But then he has to work like tai.”

Medha Joshi, a resident of Karve Road, said she won’t vote for Patil, no matter what. “I am angry that Medha Kulkarni wasn’t given the election ticket,” she explained. “Chandrakant Patil hasn’t done any extraordinary work as minister to deserve the seat of Medhatai, who has worked for the people of Kothrud zealously.”

Chaitanya Deshpande, 27, of Lagu Lane, said sacrificing Kulkarni for Patil was a wrong decision. “People are unhappy,” he added. “They are saying if Chandrakant Patil is such a big leader, why he is contesting from the safest BJP seat in Maharashtra rather than his hometown, Kolhapur. Medhatai has worked for the people of Kothrud. Patil will never be as approachable as her. But we will vote for him because of the party.”

Chandrakant Bidkar, 75, a resident of Sahakar Vasahat, has worked and voted for the BJP since when it was known as the Jana Sangh. He, too, is unhappy with the party’s decision. “Medha has been an excellent MLA. But Kothrud is a BJP area and, in the interest of the party, the people will vote for Patil. He won’t get as many votes as Medha but he will definitely win.”

Sandesh Shirshak, 50, a resident of Ganesh Nagar, said, “RSS has a strong influence in Kothrud so even though the ticket has gone to an outsider, he will win.”

Sandeep Khardekar, the BJP’s vice president in Pune, dismissed suggestions that Patil would not be as approachable as Kulkarni to the voters in Kothrud. Moreover, he argued, the constituency would benefit greatly from having a senior minister as its MLA. “Having a senior minister as its representative is going to help bring development to Kothrud. Chandrakantdada is a down to earth person and I am sure he is going to  give more than enough time to the people,” Khardekar said.

BJP supporters in Sahakar Vasahat, Kothrud.

Although the BJP seems to take Patil’s victory for granted, the minister may have a tougher fight on his hands. One reason is that the opposition alliance of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party have decided not to field a candidate in Kothrud and instead support Maharashtra Navnirman Sena’s Kishore Shinde.

Another reason is that the BJP didn’t leave any of the eight seats in Pune city for the Shiv Sena to contest, angering a section of its ally’s leaders, who could work to damage Patil’s prospects. 

Then there is the caste factor. Kothrud has a substantial population of the Brahmins, who constitute the core support base of the BJP. Of the nearly four lakh voters in the constituency, around 1.5 lakh are Brahmin. However, the influential community organisation, Akhil Bhartiya Brahmin Mahasabha, initially not only opposed the candidature of Patil, a Maratha, but even put up its own candidate, Mayuresh Argade. He was withdrawn from the fray, however, after a meeting with Patil.

“Kothrud is one of the few constituencies in Maharashtra that’s dominated by the Brahmin population. So when a good Brahmin legislator like Medha Kulkarni was not given the ticket, we felt cheated,” Govind Kulkarni, head of the Akhil Bhartiya Brahmin Mahasabha, explained their decisions. “It is fine if you remove a useless person but Medha has worked a lot here. Overall, three Brahmin MLAs were not given tickets. However, we had a meeting with Chandrakantdada and he assured us that all of them will be sent to the Legislative Council. He also assured us that a separate department will be created to provide financial help to Brahmin youth interested in starting business ventures. So, now we are going to support him.”

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