On Friday, as Nana Patole arrived here from New Delhi, shortly after being nominated as the Congress nominee from the Nagpur Lok Sabha seat, hundreds of party leaders and workers across factions were there to receive him with a grand welcome.
The crowd must have pleased the leader who joined the Congress in January 2018, a month after having become the first BJP MP to quit under Narendra Modi, questioning the Prime Minister and his policies, including agrarian. In his bid to wrest the seat from the BJP, one of Patole’s biggest hurdles would be rivalries within the city Congress — and Friday’s reception suggested Patole could overcome some of it.
While traditionally a Congress seat, Nagpur constituency is currently represented by Union minister Nitin Gadkari. Though the Congress has vowed to give Gadkari, a first-time MP from here, a tough challenge should he stand from the seat again, the minister has an advantage given the number of development works carried out under him, including roads, metro rail, flyovers etc.
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Asked how he proposed to take on a giant like Gadkari, Patole said on Saturday, “An ant can kill an elephant.” He also played down the BJP’s development claims, saying they had remained mere promises, including that of statehood for Vidarbha.
Another hurdle in Patole’s way would be the Dalit anger against him for allegedly shielding perpetrators of the 2006 Khairlanji massacre of the Bhotmange family. Denying that there was any such opposition to him, Patole said, “If that was true, people would have thrown me out of public life by now. I won the Assembly elections in 2009 and the Lok Sabha polls in 2014. What I had said after Khairlanji is in legislature records.”
Apart from seeking to send the BJP a message by fielding its rebel, Congress sources confess that they hope that bringing in an “outsider” like Patole would neutralise the factions within its local unit. If one group is led by former MP and Union minister Vilas Muttemwar, the other group owes allegiance to former state minister and chief of the party’s Scheduled Caste cell Nitin Raut and another state minister, Anees Ahmed.
Patole insisted the tag of being an “outsider” won’t hurt his chances. “If Modi can fight from Varanasi, why can’t I fight from Nagpur? I have my house here. My children study here and I am also a voter here,” he said.
However, the Congress is only too aware of Patole’s long record as a perpetual rebel. In a political career spanning nearly three decades, the 54-year-old has been with all the three main fronts in Maharashtra — starting from the Shiv Sena; switching to the Congress; rebelling against the party candidate in the Bhandara zila parishad elections in 1992 to contest as an Independent; returning to the Congress; rebelling again in the 1995 Assembly elections; returning to the Congress and winning twice from Lakhandur seat in the 1999 and 2004 Assembly polls; leaving the Congress in 2009 over the issue of bonus to paddy farmers and Vidarbha’s development “backlog”; contesting in 2009 as an Independent in the Lok Sabha polls and losing, but then winning as an MLA on a BJP ticket in 2009; and finally, in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, winning as a BJP candidate beating heavyweight NCP leader Praful Patel.
In 2017, soon after Patole left the BJP to join the Congress, a senior party leader had said, “Patole has never been loyal to any party. He has always nursed high ambitions… He was apparently trying for the post of a minister or something equivalent to that, but the BJP ignored him.”