Shadow of Maratha quota agitation, Pawar vs Pawar fight loom large in Maharashtra’s poll arena in fourth phase

11 seats, including high-profile seats of Beed and Pune, go to the polls; quota activist Manoj Jarange-Patil’s protests help galvanise push for Maratha reservation in the State

Published - May 12, 2024 03:06 am IST - PUNE

Nationalist Congress President (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar with his nephew and Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar in Mumbai. File

Nationalist Congress President (NCP) leader Sharad Pawar with his nephew and Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar in Mumbai. File | Photo Credit: PTI

The spectre of the Maratha quota agitation hovers over several electoral battles as 11 key seats in Maharashtra go to polls in phase four of the general election on May 13.

The seats that are located in the State’s arid, economically backward Marathwada region, the prosperous western part and north Maharashtra, will also feel the effect of the splits in the Shiv Sena (June 2022) and the Nationalist Congress Party (July 2023) as the Pawar family tussle between Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit Pawar plays out by proxy in these seats.

However, the shadow of the Maratha quota agitation looms large over the constituencies of Beed, Jalna and Sambhajinagar (formerly Aurangabad) where the contests are expected to go down to the wire.

Quota activism

Like a twisted Shakesperean play, the tempest of the Maratha agitation, which aggravated caste tensions in Marathwada during much of last year, has found its ‘Caliban’ in the form of quota activist Manoj Jarange-Patil. Mr. Jarange-Patil’s agitation has resulted in a sharp Maratha versus Other Backward Classes (OBC) division in the Marathwada region.

According to observers, the activist’s pull among the Maratha community is set to determine the fates of both ruling Mahayuti and opposition Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) candidates in these three seats.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded former State Minister Pankaja Munde in Beed, arguably the most intensely contested seat in this phase. She is pitted against the MVA’s Bajrang Sonawane of the Sharad Pawar-led NCP (SP). In a masterful move, the 83-year-old Sharad Pawar wooed Mr. Sonawane from Ajit Pawar’s NCP faction over to his side.

Munde clan

While clan rivalries and family splits marked the third phase of polling, particularly Baramati, a paradox in the Beed Lok Sabha constituency is that estranged cousins have come together in the form of Ms. Munde and Dhananjay Munde, who is with the ruling Ajit Pawar-led NCP faction.

Like the Pawars in Baramati, the prestige of the influential OBC Munde clan is at stake in Beed.

For Ms. Pankaja Munde, who has been given a ticket in lieu of her sister Pritam Munde — the sitting MP of Beed — it is a trial by fire as the election will determine her political future.

The outcome will also determine whether Ms. Munde is the true legatee of her father, the late BJP stalwart Gopinath Munde, who, along with Pramod Mahajan, was instrumental in leading the saffron expansion in Maharashtra by welding together the OBCs as a cohesive BJP vote-bank.

Ms. Munde has had a stormy relationship with Deputy Chief Minister and BJP leader Devendra Fadnavis while her relations with the party top brass in Delhi have been notably frigid owing to impolitic statements made by her.

Finally given a ticket as Beed’s candidate, Ms. Munde faces an uphill task owing to the heightened social tensions in the form of the Maratha versus OBC division among voters. The OBC versus Maratha feud that has long been festering in Marathwada — a region with a paucity of industry, rising unemployment and in the throes of a perennial agrarian crisis — has been given a fresh lease of life with Mr. Jarange-Patil’s agitation.

In Sambhajinagar

The mortal combat between Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena (UBT) and Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena faction is playing out most prominently in the neighbouring Sambhajinagar seat, which is seeing a three-cornered contest with the incumbent MP, Imtiaz Jaleel of the Asaduddin Owaisi-led AIMIM ranged against the Shiv Sena (Shinde faction) candidate Sandipan Bhumre and former Aurangabad MP and Sena (UBT) candidate Chandrakant Khaire.

Mr. Jaleel, who had the support of Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) in the 2019 general election, will now lack the Ambedkarite votes. He will also face a division in his core Muslim vote-bank given that a section of minority voters have moved towards Uddhav Thackeray, which is expected to benefit Mr. Khaire.

However, owing to the dizzying political alignments in the State, Mr. Khaire will now be bereft of the BJP’s Hindu votes. Mr. Bhumre, on his part, faces the wrath of the Shiv Sena cadre which has not taken kindly to Mr. Shinde’s revolt against Mr. Thackeray.

Tough fight in western Maharashtra

In western Maharashtra, the Pune seat is set for a fascinating contest: the BJP (Mahayuti) has fielded former city Mayor Murlidhar Mohol against the Congress’ Ravindra Dhangekar, an MLA who was give the parliamentary ticket after his resounding win in the Kasba by-election last year.

The Pune seat, long a bastion of the Congress since 1951, has slipped out of the party’s hands with the drift into political oblivion of Congressman Suresh Kalmadi. The BJP has reigned supreme here since the 2014 general election, consolidating their hold over Pune with a clean sweep in subsequent Assembly and civic body elections.

Despite a minor Congress renaissance last year in the form of Mr. Dhangekar’s victory, raging the party’s decrepit organisational structure as opposed to the BJP’s robust poll organisation could hamstring the MVA in this contest.

Besides Pune, two other seats in Pune district — Shirur and Maval — promise to be humdingers: In Shirur, Sharad Pawar and his nephew Ajit are locked in a bitter war by proxy as Pawar senior’s candidate, NCP (SP) leader Dr. Amol Kolhe is pitted against the former MP of Shirur, businessman Shivajirao-Adhalrao Patil, who is Ajit Pawar and the Mahayuti’s candidate.

As a political novice in 2019, Dr. Kolhe — an actor who achieved local celebrity with his portrayals of 17th century Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji and his son, Sambhaji, in two wildly popular Marathi serials — had emerged as a ‘giant killer’ in Shirur by trouncing Mr. Adhalrao-Patil, who was then with the undivided Shiv Sena.

At the time, it was Ajit Pawar who had run Dr. Kolhe’s campaign. After the NCP split, as Dr. Kolhe stayed on with Sharad Pawar, Mr. Ajit Pawar had openly vowed to defeat the actor-politician, imputing he was a political lightweight who had allegedly wanted to resign from his parliamentary post as his acting schedules were interfering with his work as MP.

Since then, Shirur has turned into a ‘mini Baramati’ as the ‘reel Shivaji’ (Dr. Kolhe) faces the ‘real’ Shivaji — Shivajirao Adhalrao-Patil.

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