Can the reunion of Maharashtra’s erstwhile ruling classes challenge BJP’s entrenched dominance?

The Deshmukhs and the Patils are silently uniting to regain power, marking the start of a revival that largely favours the Congress.

Published : Apr 26, 2024 14:46 IST - 12 MINS READ

Madha candidate Dhairyashil Mohite-Patil, NCP leader Sharad Pawar, Dahairyashil’s uncle Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, and former Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde. The Mohite-Patils have considerable influence in western Maharashtra.

Madha candidate Dhairyashil Mohite-Patil, NCP leader Sharad Pawar, Dahairyashil’s uncle Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, and former Union Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde. The Mohite-Patils have considerable influence in western Maharashtra. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

Anshuman Deshmukh, 40, is the secretary of the Akola District Congress Committee. He has a political legacy that spans three generations, but over the past 20 years, he and others in his extended family have been silent spectators in all Lok Sabha elections. This time, however, it is different. Anshuman has thrown himself into the battle and is vigorously handling the campaign for Dr Abhay Patil, Congress candidate from Akola. Asked why he had become active in elections again, Anshuman said, “There is a sense of change in the air. People want us to be active, take the lead now.”

When Anshuman says “people want us to lead”, it has many connotations in the context of Akola. In the 1998 Lok Sabha election, Prakash Ambedkar won Akola when his Republican Party of India was in an alliance with the Congress. In 1999, he won the seat on the Bhartiya Republican Party-Bahujan Mahasangh ticket. In 2004, the dominant castes united against him in favour of the BJP’s Sanjay Dhotre. Since then the seat has been with the BJP.

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Scheduled Castes constitute about 12 per cent of the population in Maharashtra. In Akola, they account for 11.7 per cent, the Scheduled Tribes (STs) 6.6 per cent, and Muslims 19 per cent. Ambedkar was successful in bringing the smaller OBC groups together and, along with the help of Muslim votes, won local body elections for 20 years. But he did not have similar success in Lok Sabha elections. The Congress fielded Muslim candidates in 2014 and 2019, which ultimately led to a division of Muslim votes that allowed the BJP to win the seat.

Hierarchical structure

The Maratha community has a hierarchical structure in which the Deshmukh Marathas are considered the most superior, followed by the Patil Marathas and other smaller groups. In most parts of Vidarbha, the Deshmukhs and the Patils take on the Kunbi (OBC) classification for reservation. Thus, while the Deshmukh-Patil group in Vidarbha gets OBC benefits for marriage and religious purposes, it behaves differently from the smaller Kunbi groups as well as other OBCs.

The Deshmukh-Patil group was the backbone of the Congress in Vidarbha and was considered the traditional ruling class. To challenge this hegemony, the BJP promoted other Kunbi and smaller OBC groups, who also benefited from the differences between the Deshmukhs and the Patils over the past 20 years. This eventually changed Vidarbha’s political dynamics, resulting in the BJP’s shrewd capture of the region.

In 2024, three major changes are reshaping Akola. First, the Congress has fielded Dr Abhay Patil, a Maratha. This, the party hopes, will add a sizeable chunk of the Maratha votes to its Muslim and Dalit vote base. Second, the BJP’s incumbent MP and chosen candidate, Sanjay Dhotre, is said to be ill, and his son Anup is a reluctant replacement. The last but most important factor is the tangible disquiet about the BJP among the Deshmukhs and the Patils.

The 2024 election is seeing the first move from the region’s traditional ruling class to regain power, towards which they appear to have put their political acumen and family relations on the line. A keen political observer can sense this seat by seat.

Take the Ramtek reserved (SC) seat, for instance, where the Congress has fielded Shamkumar Barve. Sunil Kedar, who is a key figure in the Patil Maratha leadership of the Congress in rural Nagpur which falls in this constituency, has thrown his weight behind Barve. Kedar was jailed for 40 days in January 2024 in an old case of corruption, and his Assembly membership was cancelled by the Speaker, the BJP MLA Rahul Narvekar. Although the High Court stayed the lower court order, the Speaker did not restore his membership. For Kedar, winning this seat has thus become a prestige battle.

Former Home Minister Anil Deshmukh (centre) on the campaign trail with Sunil Kedar, a key figure in the Patil Maratha leadership in rural Nagpur, and Shamkumar Barve, Ramtek candidate.

Former Home Minister Anil Deshmukh (centre) on the campaign trail with Sunil Kedar, a key figure in the Patil Maratha leadership in rural Nagpur, and Shamkumar Barve, Ramtek candidate. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

In Wardha, where the election is on April 26, Amar Kale, a former Congress MLA, has joined Sharad Pawar’s NCP. Kale is a close relative of the former Home Minister Anil Deshmukh, who was in jail for one and half years in a money laundering case. After the NCP split, Deshmukh stayed with Sharad Pawar and brought Kale into the NCP to contest from Wardha. This seat was at one time dominated by Datta Meghe, a close aide of Pawar who moved to the BJP. The BJP candidate in Wardha is its sitting MP, Ramdas Tadas, who had worked for Meghe in his educational institution and was made the BJP candidate in Wardha in 2019. But rumours of Tadas, who is from the Teli caste, establishing independent relations with the BJP’s central leadership, seem to have upset Meghe. There is a buzz that Anil Deshmukh has convinced the Deshmukh-Patils of Wardha to ensure Tadas’ defeat this time.

A similar story is brewing in adjoining Amravati, another reserved (SC) constituency, where the Congress candidate is the Amravati MLA, Balwant Wankhede, and the BJP nominee is Navneet Rana. Navneet faces opposition from Sanjay Khodke, a Patil Maratha leader in Ajit Pawar’s NCP, who is an alliance partner. Khodke’s wife, Sulbha Khodke, is the Congress MLA from Amravati City. Navneet also has to contend with strong opposition from Congress MLA Yashomati Thakur, a former guardian Minister of Amravati district. Also opposing Navneet is Bachchu Kadu, a Patil Maratha, a four-term MLA and leader of another alliance partner, the Prahar Janshakti Party; he has fielded Dinesh Boob against Navneet. Boob is a Rajasthani, and Navneet’s husband, Ravi Rana (BJP MLA from Badnera), is originally from Rajasthan. So, Boob is expected to cut into Navneet’s core votes to enable his own victory or that of Wankhede. “All these leaders against me is like Modiji being opposed by the opposition alliance. All of them have ganged up to remove me. But people are with me,” Navneet Rana told Frontline.

  • The Maratha community has a hierarchical structure with Deshmukh Marathas as the most superior, followed by Patil Marathas and smaller groups. They were the backbone of the Congress in Vidarbha.
  • The BJP promoted other Kunbi and smaller OBC groups to challenge this hegemony. This eventually changed Vidarbha’s political dynamics, resulting in the BJP’s shrewd capture of the region.
  • There is tangible disquiet about the BJP among the Deshmukhs and the Patils now. In a play of power politics, many old ruling families are realigning forces against BJP candidates.

Using family influence

The reasons for this attempt at consolidation by the Patil and Deshmukh Marathas in Vidarbha are interesting. First, they realise that this is a waveless election, with no pro-BJP or anti-BJP trend. In that case, political equations tend to matter more in each seat. Shrimant Mane, Lokmat editor for Vidarbha, said that “personal and family relations will have a clear impact this time on every seat”.

He further said, “In most seats in Vidarbha, many old ruling families have joined hands and are using their influence. Many of them have been out of power for the past 10-15 years when the BJP dominated the political scene. These leaders are realigning forces against BJP candidates. More than ideology, this is typical power politics.”

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Secondly, the Deshmukh-Patils in Vidarbha secure their influence over the people through cooperative institutions: milk dairies, sugar mills, credit societies, agricultural produce market committees, spinning mills, and even educational institutions. Until 2019, cooperatives was a State subject. But in 2020, the BJP government came up with a Central Ministry of Cooperation headed by Amit Shah. This changed the dynamics of Maharashtra’s cooperative sector. All the players in the sector have realised that if they have to survive they will have to either surrender to the BJP or fight.

BJP’s attempts to make inroads into the cooperative sector

Signs of the BJP’s attempts to make inroads into the cooperative sector were evident much earlier. In the 2014-19 term, the State cooperative department came up with a proposal to appoint directors for sugar mills, and did so for 19 sugar mills. When the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government came to power in 2019, it cancelled all the appointments. Cooperative institutions have captive voters in each Assembly constituency, and controlling these gives access to money as well as a workforce. To win Maharashtra on its own, the BJP has realised that it will have to take over the cooperative sector.

In the first two phases of voting in Vidarbha and parts of Marathwada, the traditional ruling class was seen pooling there resources together in all constituencies. But the story does not revolve around Vidarbha or Marathwada. It is a pan-Maharashtra story now, with the traditional ruling classes in all regions starting to make their moves.

In Marathwada’s Latur, where voting is on May 7, Amit Deshmukh is going all out to win the seat back for the Congress. A three-term MLA and former guardian Minister of Latur, he is the son of Vilasrao Deshmukh, the strongest Deshmukh Maratha leader in recent times, who died in 2013. In 2014 and 2019, there was a buzz that Amit and his Deshmukh family were not making adequate efforts to win Latur. But this time, Dr Shivaji Kalage, the Congress candidate, has clearly taken the lead in the campaign with the support of Amit Deshmukh, his brother and MLA Dheeraj Deshmukh, and their uncle and former Minister Diliprao Deshmukh. Amit Deshmukh is also working in the adjoining Nanded seat. Earlier, Ashok Chavan was handling Congress affairs in Nanded, but after his defection to the BJP, Amit has taken over.

The strongest signal of the Deshmukh-Patil resurgence comes from Solapur district. Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil of the NCP from Malshiras in Solapur is a respected name in State politics, and his family has considerable influence in western Maharashtra. His son Ranjitsinh Mohite-Patil joined the BJP in 2019. However, ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election, the family distanced itself from the BJP, with Vijaysinh’s nephew, Dhairyashil, contesting as the NCP (Sharadchandra Pawar) candidate in Madha constituency. Vijaysinh’s relations with Shahu Maharaj, the erstwhile ruler of Kolhapur, became the ice-breaker between Pawar and him in 2024. Indeed, the royal connection was behind the realigning of prominent political families in Maharashtra (See “In Maharashtra, an election like never before”, Frontline, March 28, 2024).

Asked about his efforts to unite all these erstwhile ruling families, Shahu Maharaj smiled and said, “If people are uniting for the betterment of society, then what is wrong? I have not inspired them, but I can say that many of the families are now returning to the right place.”

Navneet Rana, the BJP’s candidate in Amravati, before filing her nomination papers on April 4 .

Navneet Rana, the BJP’s candidate in Amravati, before filing her nomination papers on April 4 . | Photo Credit: PTI

Madha Lok Sabha constituency perhaps best demonstrates this. Ram Satpute, a staunch ideological worker of the BJP, is the MLA of Malshiras, a reserved (SC) Assembly segment in this Lok Sabha constituency. Although the Mohite-Patils joined the BJP before the 2019 Assembly election and supported Satupte, they later realised that his way of functioning would pose a serious threat to their leadership. Thus, in this Lok Sabha election they have decided to join the anti-BJP front.

The biggest hurdle for these families when they lock horns with the BJP is the corruption charges levelled against their cooperative institutions. Before 2014, the BJP accused Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar of involvement in the Rs.25,000 crore Maharashtra State Cooperative Bank scam. The Economic Offences Wing of Maharashtra filed an FIR against 70 directors, including Ajit Pawar and Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil. Also named were more than 20 MLAs, as many as 10 MPs, and 30-plus district cooperative bank chairmen.

Asked about possible action against the Mohite-Patil family for going against the BJP, Vijaysinh’s brother Jaysinh said, “We are not scared of ED or anything. Our institutions are working as per rules.” He also said that the BJP had made a proposal to the Mohite-Patil family to make Ranjitsinh a Minister after the Lok Sabha election. “But had we waited for that to happen, our politics would have been finished now. So, this was the right time to take a decision,” said Jaysinh.

Back in 2002-04, Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil was Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra. He was a Minister for almost 25 years in a political career spanning four decades. Until 15 years ago, Vijaysinh had the support of 25 MLAs. Given the circumstances, waiting for one ministry would have shattered Mohite-Patil’s image among his supporters.

Split across party lines

It is not that all families of the traditional ruling classes of Maharashtra have ditched the BJP this time. Some families have split across party lines. Ranjitsinh Naik Nimbalkar, the BJP candidate for Madha constituency, became the trigger for the Mohite-Patil family to return to the NCP (Sharadchandra Pawar). In Baramati, Sharad Pawar’s daughter Supriya Sule, is facing a serious challenge from her sister-in-law Sunetra Pawar.

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Harshwardhan Patil, Cooperatives Minister, represented Baramati’s Indapur Assembly seat for 20 years before he lost in 2014 and joined the BJP in 2019. Harshwardhan comes from a traditional ruling family. Amit Shah made Harshwardhan the chairman of the National Federation of Cooperative Sugar Factories and entrusted him with the task of making the BJP strong in the cooperative sector. The State’s Revenue Minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil is also from a traditional ruling class, and his son is the MP from South Ahmednagar and is contesting as the BJP candidate this time.

In the 1960s, the political scientist Rajni Kothari coined the term “Congress System” while analysing the roots of the Congress hegemony in Indian politics. He attributed it to a well-woven combination of caste and control of the local economy. In course of time, this “system” deteriorated in most States, but Maharashtra was among the few States where the Congress held power with the help of this system.

Although the Congress is on a sticky wicket this time, the State’s feudal system and the cooperative sector still have considerable influence on the masses. So, while on the surface the battle for 2024 is between the NDA and the MVA, in reality it is between the BJP’s aggressive religion-based hegemonical ambition and the resistance from the State’s traditional ruling classes.

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