Mumbai: Eknath Khadse — who was once one of the tallest leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Maharashtra, but was relegated to the sidelines over the last five years — walked out of the party Wednesday, planning to join the rival Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).
The 68-year-old Khadse was the de facto number two in Devendra Fadnavis’ cabinet, but has now singled out the former CM as the one responsible for leaving the BJP. He alleged Fadnavis had made him suffer “mental torture”.
Political watchers and insiders say Khadse’s exit is likely to hurt the BJP in two ways, one of which is fairly obvious — it will be a setback in parts of northern Maharashtra where he practically prepared the base for the party to grow. But the other, more important fall-out, is that it might hurt ‘Brand Fadnavis’.
Khadse told reporters at a press conference: “Even today, I have no complaints against anyone in the BJP. I have no complaints against the central leadership… I am only upset with Devendra ji.
The six-time former MLA from Jalgaon’s Muktainagar constituency then referred to a 2017 case filed against him by social activist Anjali Damania, at a time when Fadnavis ran the home department.
“The way Devendra ji registered a case of molestation against me, set up multiple inquiries… I was cleared in all of them. But I suffered mental torture… even death is better than this,” Khadse said.
Responding to these comments, Fadnavis, now Maharashtra’s leader of the opposition, told reporters: “It is unfortunate that Nathabhau (Khadse) has resigned. If there was anything against me in his mind, he should have complained to the senior leadership. What he is saying now is the half-truth.
“In such a situation, someone needs to be declared the villain, and he has made me one. It’s not an issue.”
‘Brand Fadnavis’ not unbreakable
Hemant Desai, former journalist and political commentator, said with Khadse’s exit, the BJP’s image of being a strong, united and democratic party has been shattered in Maharashtra.
“Second, this move challenges Devendra Fadnavis’ position as the BJP’s face in Maharashtra, as Khadse didn’t have specific issues with the BJP as he did with Fadnavis, as he has clearly articulated,” Desai said.
“With Khadse’s exit, other leaders who have been uneasy with Fadnavis’ leadership may also start talking,” he added.
Fadnavis’ dizzying rise within the BJP — from MLA to chief minister to someone who is in the central leadership’s circle of trust — has come at the cost of several other leaders in the party, such as Pankaja Munde and Vinod Tawde.
Senior BJP leaders such as Prakash Mehta from Mumbai and Chandrashekhar Bawankule from Nagpur were also snubbed when they were denied tickets for the 2019 assembly polls in constituencies they had held for multiple terms.
In December 2019, Anil Gote, a BJP MLA, quit the party and joined the NCP, blaming the so-called “Varsha Night Club” for sidelining BJP leaders. Gote alleged that a group of leaders close to Fadnavis would meet at the CM’s official residence ‘Varsha’ after 10 pm and hatch conspiracies against BJP leaders and ministers, helping the opposition with documents.
Pankaja Munde, daughter of late BJP strongman Gopinath Munde, practically led a revolt against Fadnavis at a rally in her home district of Beed in December 2019, but stopped short of naming him.
“The media debates and discusses about me quitting the party or mounting pressure on party leadership. This is being deliberately done by some people to ensure that I don’t get any particular party post,” Munde said, adding the BJP does not need a party “controlled by a handful of people”.
On Wednesday, Munde refused to comment on Khadse’s exit when asked by reporters, but former BJP minister Sudhir Mungantiwar made a telling statement to ThePrint.
“Khadse was not an ordinary leader of the BJP. He was a tall leader who worked for the party for decades and had a lion’s share in growing the party in Maharashtra. If such a leader has issues with the party to the extent that he quits, it is something that the party definitely needs to think about,” Mungantiwar said.
He added that till 2014, the state unit of the BJP used to have regular ‘chintan baithaks’ (brainstorming sessions). “Four or five of us senior leaders used to sit and brainstorm, introspect about any issues, anywhere we may be falling short and plan accordingly. Since 2014, these have completely stopped,” he said.
A BJP source said Khadse’s resignation will dent the public perception of the BJP in the state. “When such a senior leader who has spent all his life working for the party resigns, it definitely hurts the party’s image and raises questions about internal politics,” the source said.
Meanwhile, Maharashtra BJP president Chandrakant Patil said the party made every last effort to retain Khadse. “All of us wanted him to stay in the party and we made efforts for it. We always thought we will find some or the other solution to his grievances,” Patil said.
Setback in north Maharashtra
Khadse hails from Jalgaon district’s Muktainagar, and practically sowed the seeds for the BJP’s growth in the northern region of Maharashtra, comprising the districts of Jalgaon, Nashik, Dhule and Nandurbar.
He is a strong OBC face in the BJP, who became more important after Gopinath Munde’s death soon after becoming a Union minister in 2014.
Khadse belongs to the Leva Patil community, which used to earlier rally behind the Congress, but has supported the BJP in large numbers with Khadse’s rise.
Khadse first helped the BJP gain strength in the zilla parishad, then the district cooperative bank, and the Jalgaon municipal corporation.
Political analyst Pratap Asbe said: “Under Khadse’s leadership, the Leva Patil community, spread across Jalgaon and parts of Dhule and Nandurbar, used to rally behind the BJP. The Maratha community, which is the other significant community in districts of north Maharashtra, has largely been with the Shiv Sena. Meanwhile, the NCP has a strong base in Nashik and parts of Dhule.”
Last year, the Leva Patil community refused to support the BJP in the state polls as the party did not give Khadse a ticket. Now, with Khadse set to move to the NCP, the BJP is likely to lose the Leva Patil votes which, combined with the Shiv Sena and NCP’s presence in some districts, is likely to bring benefits to the Maha Vikas Aghadi alliance, which also includes the Congress.
A Jalgaon-based BJP leader who did not wish to be named said: “Khadse’s move is a setback, but more from the point of view of the party’s image. Ultimately, when it comes to votes, people know about all the corruption allegations against him. Moreover, elections are still a while away, so a resignation today may not cost us electorally.”