With Maharashtra BJP president Chandrakant Patil having been inducted into the Eknath Shinde cabinet now, decks have been cleared for the BJP to appoint a new chief for the state.
Keeping its focus on the 2024 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, the BJP leadership is looking to replace Patil, a Maratha leader, with an OBC leader, at the helm of the crucial party unit. Chief Minister and rebel Sena faction leader Shinde belongs to the dominant Maratha community, while senior BJP leader and Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis is a Brahmin. So by picking an OBC (Other Backward Classes) leader as the state BJP chief, the party leadership hopes to strike a caste balance in its state dispensation.
OBCs account for a substantial chunk of voters in Maharashtra. The OBC population in the state as per the Maharashtra State Backward Class Commission is 38-40 per cent as compared to the Maratha community’s 33 per cent.
The BJP has always sought to build up its OBC vote bank, given the fact that the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) traditionally have had strong leadership and support bases among Marathas in the state.
Over the last several years the BJP has made inroads in the Maratha community, especially in the Marathwada region. It emerged as the largest party in the 2019 Assembly polls, winning 106 of the total 288 seats. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the party won 23 of the total 48 seats in the state.
Early last year, during the tenure of the then Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government led by Sena president Uddhav Thackeray, the Supreme Court had scrapped the 27% OBC reservation in state local bodies for not fulfilling its “triple test” criteria. A political row had been raging in the state since then, with the BJP as the then principal Opposition keeping the heat on the MVA government over the issue.
Days after the Shinde-BJP government took charge following the collapse of the MVA government, the Banthia Commission – a dedicated panel set up by the state government in March 2022 for collating empirical data on state OBCs — submitted its report to the government, recommending 27 per cent OBC reservation in local bodies. On July 20, the apex court accepted the Banthia panel report and allowed 27 per cent OBC quota in the local bodies polls. With the protracted stalemate now resolved, the BJP is set to capitalise on the issue in various coming elections, including the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls.
In July 2019, the then Maharashtra BJP president Raosaheb Danve, who won from the Jalna constituency, was inducted into the Narendra Modi ministry at the Centre, following which Patil was appointed in his place to complete his remaining term until early 2020. Patil was then a minister in the CM Fadnavis-led BJP-Sena coalition government.
In view of the October 2019 Assembly polls, the BJP had allowed Patil to continue in both his positions by waiving the “one leader, one post” rule. In February 2020, Patil’s name as the state BJP chief was formally ratified at a party meet and he got a three-year tenure.
As both Danve and Patil belong to the Maratha community, the BJP believes it is time to hand over the state party leadership to an OBC leader. The names of leaders like Chandrashekhar Bawankule and Ram Shinde are doing the rounds in party circles in this regard.
Bawankule, who hails from the Vidarbha region, was the energy minister in the Fadnavis government. He belongs to the Teli community (OBC).
In the 2019 Assembly polls, Bawankule was denied BJP ticket, which reportedly damaged the party’s prospects in several seats in Vidarbha inhabited predominantly by Teli and Kunbhi communities. The party later rehabilitated Bawankule by making him a member of the state Legislative Council (MLC) and general secretary in the state unit.
The second front-runner for the state BJP president’s post is Ram Shinde, who was also a minister in the Fadnavis government. Shinde, who belongs to the Dhangar community (OBC), is from Ahmednagar district in western Maharashtra. In the 2019 Assembly polls, he contested from Karjat-Jamkhed but lost to the NCP candidate. Later, the BJP nominated him as an MLC. He has also been made the party in-charge of the Baramati constituency, NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s home turf.
BJP insiders said, “The party has always maintained one leader, one post principle,” adding that Patil will have to leave his party position now.
With the Shinde-BJP government in place, the saffron party is now gearing up to restructure its organisation and prepare it for the 2024 electoral battles. It might also propose holding the state Assembly polls along with the Lok Sabha elections in April-May 2024.