In 2005, when he was welcomed into the Congress at a function in Mumbai, Narayan Rane was flanked by eight Shiv Sena MLAs and a Sena MP. On Thursday, when he announced his resignation from the Congress, those loyalists were absent, many of them having returned to the Sena over the last decade.
Rane, known to be pugnacious even as a young leader who earned notoriety with a band of ready-to-scuffle followers at Chembur, suburban Mumbai, retained much of that aggressiveness through the 1970s and later. Also seen as the perpetual rebel, Rane is said to have jostled hard within the Sena too for various posts — leader of opposition in 1995, chief minister for nine months in 1999. But when he spoke Thursday, alleging the Congress heaped humiliation on him, he appeared tired and needy, despite his threats that people will soon see a display of his power, that he could still empty out the Congress as well as the Sena’s ranks.
Failing to convince
Arvind Sawant, Sena MP, described Rane’s machismo as “ridiculous”, reflective of frustration. “A person who talks about leading Maharashtra is now confined to the gram panchayats of Konkan,” he said. “Rane should introspect — he has lost two consecutive elections, including one in Konkan.”
In 2014, young Sena candidate Vaibhav Naik ended Rane’s 24-year run as MLA, winning Kudal by over 10,000 votes. Then in March 2015, when a desperate Rane took on the Sena’s Trupti Sawant in a bypoll in Bandra East — the Thackeray home ‘Matoshree’ is part of the constituency — following the death of Sena MLA Prakash Sawant, Trupti’s husband, Rane lost by 19,000 votes.
From street-style score-settling and then as a grassroots Sena worker in the 1970s to a gritty climb upwards, from being Maharashtra CM to back-to-back defeats in 2014 and 2015, Rane has had a turbulent political career, written off many times only to rise again. At 65, his immediate plan appears enigmatic, but then brinkmanship is his natural game.
Between 2007 and 2014, Rane did not hesitate to speak out repeatedly against the Congress leadership, his desire to become CM apparent. In 2007, his supporters raised slogans against then CM (late) Vilasrao Deshmukh during a rally presided over by Sonia Gandhi in Mumbai. In 2008, the Congress suspended him after he made allegations against Sonia, Rahul Gandhi, and Sonia’s political secretary Ahmed Patel. That outburst had followed the Congress decision to appoint Ashok Chavan as Deshmukh’s successor. The suspension was eventually revoked.
But Rane’s fortunes in the Congress remained on a wane, marred by bickering. In 2014, he took on then CM Prithviraj Chavan and threatened to quit his cabinet.
Said one Rane supporter, who had defected with him from the Sena and has now rejoined the party, “Rane lost track of all of us amid his own struggles for grabbing the CM’s post. We were left to fend for ourselves.”
Former aides Vinayak Nimhan, Rajan Teli, Ravindra Phatak, Srikant Sarmalkar, Sada Sarvankar, Parshuram Uparkar and others found it difficult to adjust to the Congress “style” of politics, and later moved back to the Sena, challenging Rane’s clout in the process. Others such as Vijay Wadettiwar and Manikrao Kokate (now with the BJP) aligned themselves with other Congress heavyweights, undercutting Rane’s clout.
Blaming greed for power for the situation Rane finds himself in, Maharashtra Congress spokesperson Raju Waghmare said, “Within a day or two of his joining the Congress, Rane was appointed a minister and was always given key portfolios such as Revenue and Industries. He remained a minister as long as the Congress was in power. Despite his successive losses in polls since 2014, the party had respected his stature by getting him elected to the legislative council. Rane now says he has never hankered for posts or power — his journey in the Congress tells a different story altogether.”
Trouble on home turf
Even the Konkan region, where Rane wielded considerable clout, is no longer cakewalk for his family, amid allegations of misuse of power.
Signs of voter disenchantment were apparent in the results of the 2009 assembly elections, when Narayan Rane retained Kudal but with a smaller margin. There was also unhappiness that he tended to promote his two sons over long-serving party workers. In 2014, Rane was defeated even as younger son Nitesh won the adjoining Kankavali seat. “The people have rejected me. I fail to understand what kind of development they want,” the senior Rane would say later.
Vaibhav Naik, who defeated Rane in Kudal, says the family’s reign “of muscle power and money power” in Konkan is on the wane. “If he still held the influence he did earlier, could I have won? Even if there are disgruntled elements in the local municipal councils other local bodies who want to leave the Congress or the Sena, why would they go with him today instead of approaching the BJP directly?” Naik said.
He said many leaders had aligned with Rane in 2005 because of his claim that he had an assurance from Sonia that he would be the next CM. “Right now he is merely ensuring his own and his sons’ rehabilitation in the BJP.”
Senior Sena leaders concede that some local leaders in Konkan, including former Sainiks who contested and won in recent years on Congress tickets, may want to join Rane, even if his shadow over the coastal region of Konkan is now thinning. But no major leader is expected to join the Konkan strongman anytime soon. As of now, he has only son Nitesh and long-time loyalist Kalidas Kolambkar, both MLAs —and both missing from Thursday’s announcement.
“There may be disagreements within the party, but hardly to the extent that anyone will leave the party,” says former Mumbai Congress chief and former Union minister Gurudas Kamat. “We are in the process of internal party elections with the block returning officers having been announced, and certainly there would be unhappiness when some groups get more prominence than others. This is my 46th year in the party, and I can say there is no question of people leaving the party over any unhappiness,” he says.
On the loss of a leader of Rane’s stature, Kamat said, “Anyone who joins the party at that level and was cabinet minister and then leaves would be a loss. It’s a loss we have to replace, in Sindhudurg especially.”
In 2005, Bal Thackeray had himself campaigned for the Sena in Malwan – such was the threat to the Sena from Rane’s departure. As he departed from the Congress on Thursday, not many senior leaders took note.