New Delhi: Aggressive, outspoken and unpredictable — Nana Patole, the new president of the Maharashtra Congress has left his colleagues divided about how much his elevation will benefit the party and influence the stability of the Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance government.
Patole, 57, was officially announced as the president Friday afternoon, a day after he stepped down as the Speaker in the Maharashtra assembly. The Congress rebel-turned BJP rebel was chosen for the coveted post over two other top contenders — Rajiv Satav and Vijay Wadettiwar.
Sources said the Congress picked Patole primarily due to his Other Backward Castes (OBC) identity. A member of the influential Kunbi community, Patole is also known to have a strong following in the Vidarbha region.
He has been fiercely vocal about his identity; in December 2017, when he quit the BJP, he lashed out at PM Narendra Modi for playing the ‘OBC card’ but not really caring for the community’s welfare.
“The Prime Minister said that he came from a ‘Nichi Jati’ (lower caste) and that was why he was being hounded, I was furious. When I was demanding a separate ministry for OBCs, it was Mr Modi who had shouted at me and questioned its need saying that the OBCs don’t need it,” Patole said at the time.
“I also come from a backward caste but when I raised the issues of my people, you shout at me. But you go in an election and flaunt your OBC background. What have you done for the OBCs? They are still away from progress.”
Moreover, Patole has in the past positioned himself as a fiercely pro-farmer leader, so much so that when he quit the BJP, he released a 14-point letter citing the reasons, where he strongly criticised the Modi government’s implementation of the farm loans waiver scheme.
This mix of OBC welfare advocacy and pro-farmer persona is what the party hopes to bank on, especially with many local body polls in Maharashtra slated for 2022.
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History of defections
Patole, however, has had a chequered political career, marred with multiple defections.
He began his political innings in the Congress as a Zila Parishad member from Sangadi village at Vidarbha’s Bhandara district in 1990.
He, however, left the Congress and contested his first assembly election as an Independent in 1995 but lost. He subsequently returned to the Congress and contested the Assembly elections from the Lakhandur constituency in Bhandara in 1999, and won the seat again in 2004.
Patole, around that time, started being seen as one of the most prominent leaders of the Vidarbha region. He subsequently made statements against his own party as well as allies NCP over a series of farmer suicides in the region.
He quit the Congress for the second time in 2009 and fought the Lok Sabha election as an Independent against NCP’s Praful Patel from Bhandara-Gondia constituency; he lost.
He, however, switched over to the BJP the same year and fought the assembly election from Sakoli constituency and won.
In 2014, Patole contested the Lok Sabha election against Praful Patel again but won this time. He was subsequently hailed as a ‘giant killer’ for defeating a heavyweight like Patel.
He quit the BJP and rejoined the Congress in 2018.
“His elevation is being viewed with scepticism within the party, given his history of flip-flops. Party loyalists who haven’t left the party even in the toughest of times aren’t rewarded, so there is a certain bitterness,” a Maharashtra Congress leader told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
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Vidarbha voter base
Despite Patole’s multiple flip flops, he is still seen as one of the ‘strongest’ figures to occupy the role of state Congress president.
“He left the BJP and resigned as a sitting MP and joined the Congress in 2018. This was at a time when everyone was quitting other parties and joining BJP. So, of course, Congress welcomed him with open arms,” said Abhay Deshpande, a political analyst based out of Maharashtra.
Patole contested the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket against Union Minister Nitin Gadkari at Nagpur and lost.
The Congress still appointed him as its lead campaign manager for the state assembly election that year — as part of which he led a ‘Pol Khol Yatra’, in order to counter the BJP’s ‘Maha Janadesh Yatra.’
After the MVA alliance was stitched and assumed power, Patole was keen on a ministerial berth but was instead made the speaker of the state assembly.
Patole is also known to have a strong following in the Vidarbha region.
“Vidarbha was a traditional Congress stronghold. It was the only region in Maharashtra where the Congress continued to prosper even after Emergency, but they eventually lost that voter base,” Deshpande said. “Choosing Patole as the party president is a way to regain ground in the region.”
In 2014, the then BJP-Shiv Sena alliance swept Vidarbha, winning all 10 Lok Sabha seats in the region, wiping out the Congress. Then in 2019, the alliance won 9 out of the 10, while Congress managed to win just one.
‘Confrontational’ nature may hamper stability
Congress leaders also describe Patole as a fairly “aggressive” leader, who doesn’t shy away from confrontation.
“He will have to find a way to keep his cool and take all the party leaders together, as well as our alliance partners. We can’t afford any instability,” a party leader said.
After Patole stepped down as the Speaker late Thursday, the NCP and Shiv Sena immediately expressed disappointment claiming the two parties weren’t consulted before the move.
“Indeed, the chief minister has not liked Patole resigning as the Speaker. The CM feels that when things are going smoothly for the three-party government, there was no need to disturb it,” Shiv Sena leader Sanjay Raut has said.
“Instead of focussing on governance, now a few days will be wasted on getting a candidate elected. The three parties will have to do everything possible to get a new candidate elected as the Speaker.”
NCP president Sharad Pawar also claimed to have not been consulted about the resignation. “He will have to iron out the differences between the allies, and also take along the various factions within the Congress,” said political analyst Dhaval Kulkarni.
“But the fact that he has some committed following would also mean the Congress might be able to assert itself better within the three-pronged alliance, in which it is the junior-most member,” he added.
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