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Maharashtra NCP eyes image makeover ahead of 2019, to pick new state president on Sunday

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Maratha leaders Jayant Patil, who is close to party chief Sharad Pawar, and Shashikant Shinde are frontrunners for the post.

Mumbai: The NCP, which is facing a credibility crisis in Maharashtra — its strongest bastion — will pick a new state president Sunday with the hope that the new leader will fix the existing problems and steer the party into the 2019 Lok Sabha and Maharashtra assembly polls.
<strong>Mumbai:</strong> The NCP, which is facing a credibility crisis in Maharashtra—its strongest bastion and home turf—elected senior legislator Jayant Patil as its new state president Sunday to steer the party into the 2019 Lok Sabha and Maharashtra assembly polls.
NCP legislators Jayant Patil and Shashikant Shinde — both from the Maratha community and belonging to the party’s stronghold of western Maharashtra — are frontrunners for the state president’s post.
While Patil is close to NCP chief Sharad Pawar, Shinde has a strong backing of Pawar’s nephew Ajit Pawar, sources told ThePrint. Incumbent state president Sunil Tatkare, who was at the helm of the party for four years, decided to drop out of the race.

Hurt by a credibility crisis, the NCP had in 2014 posted its worst performance in Maharashtra. Senior leaders battling graft allegations, a split with the Congress and demoralisation of the party cadre also contributed to its woes.

Some speculate Dhananjay Munde, a young OBC leaser from Marathwada, and the leader of the opposition in the legislative council, could also be considered for a position of more responsibility.

“To date, the face of the party is Sharad Pawar. He has already done the ground work,” said NCP legislator Jitendra Awhad.

“Whoever is the new state president should be able to carry on the same baton to effectively reach the people. A clean, neat face who can reach the masses is the need of the hour,” he added.

Challenges before NCP

With NCP leader Chhagan Bhujbal behind bars in connection with an alleged money laundering case, top leaders Ajit Pawar and Tatkare facing probes over the alleged irrigation scam when they were ministers, the credibility crisis that haunted the NCP during the 2014 polls is still very much there.

“Very honestly, we are struggling to maintain our credibility. Unfortunately the allegations against our leadership have made us lose our face value,” a former NCP legislator said, stressing that the party requires an image makeover.

Another senior leader said the NCP is especially losing young voters due to its image. “Young voters do not properly know the ideology that Pawar saheb (Sharad Pawar) stands for.

“The things that they hear about Ajit Pawar now in the news or on social media, are not good. So, it is not easy to connect with them,” he added.

Since the NCP started contesting elections in Maharashtra in 1999, its best tally has been 71 of the 288 assembly seats in 2004, while the worst was in 2014 with 41 seats.

Political analysts and party insiders say it is the lack of a strong presence in major urban centres that has stymied the NCP’s growth in its home state.

Very little urban presence

It has very little presence in Thane, except for the city’s fringes, or in Mumbai, which put together account for more than 50 assembly seats. While Pune was once its stronghold, the BJP has now swept the city.

“The NCP’s forte is rural areas and that too in southern and western Maharashtra and that is a main reason why its strength in the Maharashtra legislative assembly has been in the 60-70 range,” said political commentator Prakash Bal.

“So, Sharad Pawar has his limitations and until he joins hands with the Congress, he will never get power,” Bal added.

He further said that with Pawar having indicated his will of allying with the Congress for 2019, the new state president will also need to have good relations with the party and will have to further Pawar’s wish of hammering out a suitable coalition.

Also, a hanging sword over the NCP is the lack of a strong and undisputed second rung of leadership after Sharad Pawar. A Maharashtra Congress leader said, “Everyone in the party is not convinced about the leadership of Ajit Pawar. Some have even expressed their wish for the two parties to merge.”

Reconnecting with the masses

The NCP recently launched a ‘Halla Bol’ campaign, as part of which senior leaders have been travelling to different parts of the state, going on the ground and addressing large rallies of voters, highlighting the failures of the BJP-led governments at the Centre and in the state.

“We have started working on building up our organisational strength. The Halla Bol agitation has been very successful,” said NCP’s Sachin Ahir.

“Gatherings are big and even the few who were demoralised within the party have started working with a new vigour,” he added.

According to Pratap Asbe, political analyst, the NCP’s overall emphasis and roots are in western Maharashtra and Marathwada, to some extent, where a drop in sugar prices is a major concern.

“While the NCP’s strategy of reaching out to people is right, it needs to take up this issue of a drop in sugar prices too,” he added.

NCP leaders also said that Sharad Pawar’s role at the Centre of being a focal point for all regional and opposition parties to rally against the BJP will also go a long way in propping up the party’s image.

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