Since taking over as the Maharashtra Congress chief in February, Nana Patole has been signalling that the party will not be a silent partner in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government. His outburst that Shiv Sena and NCP were backstabbing Congress was in keeping with a pattern of utterances by him over the last six months, aimed at asserting his and the party’s presence in the state.
From the very first day after taking over as the president of the Maharashtra Congress, Patole has been saying that his party would contest the 2024 Assembly elections independently, and make Congress the number one party in the state.
Irked by his continuous reiteration of this, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and NCP chief Sharad Pawar have both responded with potshots against him.
Last month, during NCP’s foundation day, Thackeray had rebuked Patole without naming him, stating that during a pandemic, people have no tolerance or patience for leaders playing politics and “who keep chanting about fighting the elections independently”.
Earlier this week, when a H K Patil-led delegation of Congress leaders met Pawar, he sought to know whether the party leadership has decided to contest the polls separately in Maharashtra.
The Congress delegation’s meeting with Pawar also came days after Patole’s claims that he was being surveilled by the MVA government. Naming Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar and Home Minister Dilip Walse Patil, he said that reports of his movements and activities were being shared with them daily. He said this at a party workers’ meeting in Lonavala, where he also alleged that Sena and NCP were “backstabbing” Congress.
While NCP dismissed the allegation, terming it a routine work of the state police’s intelligence wing, Pawar snubbed him saying that “a small leader’s comment does not warrant his response”.
The NCP and Sena have another reason to be upset with Patole. He quit as Speaker without a heads up to them. Pawar and Thackeray were informed only after Patole submitted his resignation.
“The NCP chief and the CM did not like the way Patole resigned. The Speaker’s post is very crucial for the government. Such decisions should not be taken without consulting the allies when there is strong Opposition,” said a Sena leader.
Not just NCP and Sena, some senior Congress leaders are also at odds with Patole, and believe his statements have the potential to cause instability in MVA coalition.
“While Patole is doing his job as the party chief, he should observe restraint to ensure that the allies are not hurt,” said a leader.
The Speaker’s post too has become a contentious issue within the Congress.
Party sources said that Patole wants a ministerial berth in the state Cabinet, with an important portfolio. But no Congress minister wants to quit the Cabinet at this point to become the Speaker, and make way for Patole.
Also, Patole’s letter to Thackeray alleging irregularities in the tendering process of the Maharashtra State Mining Corporation under the industries department, but relating to the energy department held by Congress minister Nitin Raut, has surprised senior Congress leaders and also led to speculations of differences within the party.
Patole (58) comes from the Bhandara district in Vidarbha and is a fourth-term MLA. Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, he had joined BJP and was elected as MP from Bhandara-Gondia. In 2017, he quit the BJP criticising Narendra Modi government’s anti-farmers policies and returned to the Congress.
After getting elected as a legislator in 2019, he was made the Assembly Speaker. However, he resigned in February and was named the state Congress president with the task of re-energising the party, which has been at the fourth position in the state since 2014.
A senior Congress leader said that Patole was only doing what Sena and NCP were also doing. Thackeray had recently asked Sena workers to expand the party’s base without thinking of an alliance, and NCP has been also making efforts to strengthen the party. “We are also doing the same. While they are doing it without saying, we are directly saying that we will fight the polls solo,” said the leader.
He added that one reason why Sena and NCP were angry with Patole is that he has been determined not to let them encroach into Congress’ space in Maharashtra.
“Five months ago, Congress was nowhere in the state. Patole has given a voice to the Congress and re-energised the party cadre by touring various districts and holding rallies. Sena and NCP won’t be able to eat into Congress’ space anymore,” said the leader.
In the last few months, some leaders, including former Sena legislator Sharad Patil and former NCP legislator Dilip Bansod had joined the Congress while former minister Sunil Deshmukh had returned to the party after quitting the BJP. “It has given a positive message to the party workers, as many leaders have deserted Congress in the last few years. The party workers have been charged up in the last few months,” said another leader.
Sena leaders said that there is nothing wrong with expanding the party’s base but it should not disturb the stability of the MVA government.
An NCP minister said that Patole should avoid making controversial statements about the government. “All parties can expand their base. But controversial statements about the government should be avoided, as it gives a negative impression.”