Mumbai: The exit of senior BJP leader Eknath Khadse, who quit the saffron party on Wednesday to join the Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar, is being viewed as a big setback for the saffron party which seems to be struggling at the moment in Maharashtra.
The saffron leadership should now be worried that Khadse’s move to quit the party, which he served for nearly 35 years, may soon erode its OBC vote bank in Maharashtra.
The party’s fears are not totally unfounded since Khadse has long been the party’s OBC face in Maharashtra ever since the death of Gopi Nath Munde – another towering BJP leader in the state.
It is also a well-known fact that Khadse, along with former chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, had worked tirelessly in strengthening the BJP in Maharashtra, especially in the OBC pockets of the state.
Khadse was initially groomed by a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) worker and Jan Sanghi Ashok Phadke in Jalgaon. Khadse’s Leva Patil community in North Maharashtra was then firmly with the Congress due to the influence of senior leader Madhukarrao Chaudhari. Khadse gradually helped the BJP strike roots in this landed agrarian group and other OBCs.
In 1990, Khadse was elected to the state legislative assembly from the Edlabad constituency in Jalgaon. The seat was once represented by Pratibha Patil of the Congress, who became the President of India in 2007.
His influence in Maharashtra’s politics can be understood from the fact that veteran politician and NCP founder Sharad Pawar had openly praised him for his role as the ‘leader of the opposition’ in the state assembly.
“Khadse played a significant role in building the BJP in Maharashtra. He would criticise us and we would take note of it,” the NCP veteran had said on Monday. “One is bound to feel disturbed if his contributions and hard work are not taken note of. He may think why he shouldn’t shift to a party which appreciates his work,” the NCP leader had added.
All this had triggered huge speculations about Khadse joining the NCP in Maharashtra. Given his stature in state politics, there are now speculations that Khadse may soon be given a cabinet berth in the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition government in Maharashtra.
According to sources, Khadse may be made the state’s agriculture minister – a portfolio currently retained by the Shiv Sena. Lending credence to the reports, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has said that he will welcome Khadse if decides to join the MVA alliance government.
According to the insiders, Khadse was reportedly upset ever since he was made to resign as a minister in the then Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP government in 2016 on corruption allegations.
Since then, there were intense rumours about Khadse quitting the BJP, but the party downplayed the concerns and never took it seriously. Just recently, his colleague and former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis dismissed the speculations, saying there are talks every day of such kind of “muhurat”.
But with Khade finally calling it quits, it has now raised an alarm bell for the BJP, which wants to seize power in Maharashtra by unseating the Shiv Sena, Congress and NCP led MVA government.
A section in the saffron party now fears that Khadse’s resignation will lead to more exits in the days to come. The party leadership’s failure to ”manage” Khadse and his resentment brewing within him will lead to more party leaders, activists and elected legislators leaving BJP at a later stage.
It may be noted that Khadse was denied a BJP ticket to contest the assembly election in Maharashtra in 2019. Though, his daughter Rohini was fielded by the party as a BJP candidate in the assembly elections. However, she lost.
Meanwhile, Khadse’s daughter-in-law Raksha had contested the Lok Sabha election 2019 on a BJP ticket and won. In the present circumstances, it is not clear yet whether Raksha will follow in her father-in-law’s footsteps and quit the party in the days to come.
On the other hand, the Sharad Pawar camp had been quick in grabbing the opportunity to target the BJP for neglecting its senior party leader and remains confident that his inclusion will only strengthen the party as well as the three-party coalition in Maharashtra.