AT JALGAON, BJP’s strongest bastion, the young Unmesh Patil’s biggest challenge does not come from his political rival, NCP’s Gulabrao Deokar. The most serious threat to the 40-year-old, who is the official BJP candidate for the prestigious seat in north Maharashtra, comes from within the faction-ridden local party unit.
The BJP has retained the Jalgaon seat for the last two decades without interruption. But this time, from Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis to Guardian Minister Girish Mahajan, top leaders have swung into action to diffuse the differences within the organisation that has exposed the ugly power tussle in the local unit.
The problems for the party started when the top leadership decided to replace the two-term sitting MP A T Nana Patil with MLC Smita Wagh. However, shortly after she filed her nomination, the party realised she was not eliciting the response it had expected. As a result, she was replaced with the non-controversial and youthful Unmesh Patil, the Chalisgaon MLA.
The party’s decision to change the sitting MP came about after a sleaze video, which purportedly showed him with a woman, was circulated widely. However, Nana Patil had dismissed the charge. “It was the handiwork of my political rivals to malign my image.”
Across the city, the BJP cadre acknowledged that the developments were “saddening”. At the same time, they were confident that Jalgaon’s BJP base could not be shaken even by such ugly infighting.
The cadre, with adequate backing of the RSS, is more than determined to ensure the official candidate’s victory with a margin of more than 1.5 lakh votes — a target that Fadnavis has set for the unit under Mahajan’s leadership.
Criss-crossing the constituency, it is clear that the BJP has acknowledged the leadership of Mahajan, who is a new power centre, replacing old guard Eknath Khadse, who resigned as a minister following the land scam in 2015. Unmesh Patil is Mahajan’s choice.
The election in Jalgaon is heading for a straight fight between Patil and NCP’s Deokar. The NCP’s decision to field a former minister of state, who was twice arrested and imprisoned following charges of corruption in Gharkul Housing Society Scheme in 2012 and 2013, is being perceived as political compulsion.
A senior NCP leader in charge of north Maharashtra said: “In Jalgaon, our best bet was Gulabrao Deokar. We didn’t have another candidate who would fight the elections willingly. Secondly, we believe the graft charges are old and he has been absolved in the crime. So, where is the question of denting NCP’s image?”
Seeking to deflect attention away from his past, Deokar has kept the campaign focussed against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Across Jalgaon, posters of him ask: “Where are the achhe din?”
In the BJP, president Amit Shah has issued a veiled threat to inhouse rebels to follow the party line or “face consequences”.
A close aide of Nana Patil said, “He is networking by attending weddings.” But some see this as a pretext to keep away from campaigning.
A disappointed Smita Wagh has reiterated her commitment to the organisation. But perceived to be close to the Khadse camp, she has made it plain that the manner in which she was dropped was humiliating, said sources.
BJP workers recall how Wagh’s supporters engaged in a physical bout with former MLA B S Patil recently. Her husband Uday Wagh, who heads the Jalgaon district party unit, is also reason for the party changing her candidature as several complaints have been received against him.
While underplaying the infighting, Mahajan said, “I understand the sentiments of the individuals. But we cannot overlook the fact that 2019 polls are about getting each and every vote to strengthen Prime minister Narendra Modi. It is not for Jalgaon or Maharashtra.”
The decision to field Unmesh Patil was taken consciously, keeping in mind the larger party’s interests and electoral merit, he added.
Machhindra Ratan Patil, a former zilla parishad head, said: “In Jalgaon, we have always followed the mantra ‘party is bigger than an individual’. This was the message that helped BJP retain its supremacy here.”
The Jalgaon seat comprises six Assembly segments — Jalgaon City (BJP), Jalgaon Rural (Shiv Sena), Amalner (Congress), Erandol (NCP), Chalisgaon (BJP) and Pachora (Shiv Sena). The constituency will vote on April 23.