While Narayan Rane is busy leading the Congress party’s shaky election campaign in Maharashtra, there is trouble brewing on his home turf of Sindhudurg. After elder son Nilesh Rane lost the family stronghold to Shiv Sena’s Vinayak Raut in May’s Lok Sabha polls, the Konkan strongman now faces the tough task of tiding over rebellion among voters and enmity from former party colleagues, who are now rivals.
Rane’s troubles in this heartland augur badly for Congress’s fortunes in the state. While there is little evidence on the ground of a Modi wave, much bile seems to flow against Rane, from the farmers to fishermen. Of the 35 districts in Maharashtra, Sindhudurg has the lowest voter population at 6.42 lakh, but Rane’s long grip over the Maratha-dominated coastal region allowed him an outsized presence in state politics. The district, part of the bigger Sindhudurg-Ratnagiri parliamentary seat with six Assembly segments, is itself divided into three Assembly constituencies, Kudal-Malwan, Kankavali and Sawantwadi. His younger son Nitesh will contest his first elections from Kankavali and Rane will contest for the seventh time from Kudal-Malwan.
Two of these seats are currently with NCP and BJP. So with the Lok Sabha seat gone and a tally of one for the Assembly, Rane is arguably holding no bastion at all for the Congress. And for the first time in 24 years his own seat is now under a cloud. The Congress, which led by about 24,000 votes in the 2009 Assembly polls, trailed by a good 22,000 votes in Kudal in this year’s parliamentary polls. This time Rane takes on local Sena leader and old foe Vaibhav Naik, who left Congress within a year of Rane joining Congress from Sena in 2005.
Then there is growing voter resentment to contend with. During the Lok Sabha elections, representatives from villages affected by two dozen major projects from across the district quietly met at Kudal where they passed a resolution to vote against the sitting MP Nilesh Rane and in favour of the Sena candidate Raut. That meeting was a turning point, according to Ravikiran Toruskar, a fisherman from Malwan, who heads the Konkan project-affected coordination committee. “The Lok Sabha defeat has only emboldened the locals who would once talk about the Rane family only in whispers,” he said.
The major grievance has been the use of state machinery to notify land in excess of what is required for specific projects, forcing farmers to give up their plots to local middlemen at low prices. In Sawantwadi, locals have successfully challenged the state’s decision to acquire 38 acres of land for a toll barrier. Another set of farmers is pursuing a legal battle against the acquisition of 307 hectares for the Chipi airport project, when the core airport area needs just a fraction this total.
In Kudal-Malwan, villagers are fighting the acquisition of 1,300 acres of their farmlands for Sea World, a theme park project that was initially meant to be only 250 acres in size. The district has rarely seen an open rebellion since the 2009 revolt against the Kalane mine. The state quelled the protests by arresting local farmers and school teachers who raised their voice against the starting of a mine by a local Congress leader.
Today, Rane’s dissenters include marginal farmers, small-scale fishermen and those affected by land acquisition for dam, illegal mining and industrial projects. “Villagers who were scared of speaking out are today openly campaigning against the Congress. Despite peacefully resisting the acquisition of our multi-crop land for the Sea World project, in public meetings, Rane threatened that protesters will be silenced the same way as those who opposed the Jaitapur nuclear power plant. We will give our reply in this election,” said 66-year-old Arun Kamble, who lives off his paddy fields in Malwan.
The other two Congress candidates from the district may not have it much easy either. In the Kankavali seat, where Rane’s son Nitesh is the candidate, former Congress MLC Vijay Sawant would be contesting as an independent. Sawant had earlier, in a letter to Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee’s Manikrao Thakre, hit out against Rane family’s said stake in petrol pumps, hotels and plots in the area.
The nearby Sawantwadi seat will witness a battle of sorts between several former bedfellows of Rane, including Rajan Teli from BJP, Deepak Kesarkar from Shiv Sena, Parushuram Uparkar from MNS. The NCP candidate will be backed by former Cabinet minister Pravin Bhosale, who quit Congress a week ago. Rane has fielded political novice Chandrakant Gawde in the seat that was traditionally held by former alliance partner NCP.
During the Lok Sabha polls, Kesarkar, who was then the sitting MLA from NCP, refused to campaign for Nilesh Rane citing Rane’s heavy-handedness as the reason. “I oppose Rane’s style of functioning. There have been instances of violence after elections whenever the Congress candidate is not voted in,” said Kesarkar, adding that several one-time Rane loyalists are disgruntled and have deserted the party.
Narayan Rane and son Nitesh, however, seem unfazed. “If people have left the party, many others have joined too. Those who have left are insignificant and it is good that the filth is gone,” he told The Sunday Express. Nitesh denied that this was any indication of a decline of the Rane family in the region, terming it as a “good correction”.
“Our second-line of leadership stabbed us in the back by working against the party during the Lok Sabha elections. They are also the reason for disconnect between my father and the voter. Several of them took up contract work for infrastructure projects and did a shoddy job. People then mistakenly directed their anger towards my father,” said Nitesh.