Patole’s broadside against the NCP further strained their relations which have been fraught in the backdrop of the Congress’s eroding support base vis-a-vis the NCP, with the latter carrying on with its bid to poach the grand old party’s leaders over the last few months.
The current round of conflict between the two allies seemed to have stemmed from a “personal slight” felt by Patole, who failed to ensure the Congress’s victory in his own Gondia belt. It started in the wake of elections for selection of the president and vice-president of Gondia and Bhandara Zilla Parishads.
In the 53-member Gondia Zilla Parishad, in which the BJP has 26 members, Congress 13, NCP 6, Janata ki Party 4, and Independents 2, the NCP’s local unit joined hands with the BJP to ensure the election of the saffron party’s Pankaj Rahangdale as the ZP president and the NCP’s Yashwant Gunvir as its vice-president. Rahangdale defeated the Congress’s Usha Mendhe, while Gunvir trounced Congress nominee Jitendra Katre.
Crying foul over the NCP’s “betrayal” after the poll outcome, Patole charged that it has “stabbed Congress in the back”, adding that the Congress central leadership will be apprised about the Sharad Pawar-led party’s “machinations of the last two-and-a-half years” during the party’s Udaipur Chintan Shivir. He said, “An enemy attacking openly from the front is better than a dishonest alliance between two parties.”
On its part, the NCP brushed aside the Gondia episode as a “local dispute”, with its minister and state unit president Jayant Patil calling Patole’s allegation “wrong”. Claiming that the NCP always wants that the three MVA allies should remain together, he said, “There may be some problem among local NCP and Congress leaders due to differences in opinions. We will look into its details.”
Interestingly, Patole did not have any qualms about the Congress tying up with a BJP breakaway faction rather than the NCP in order to take control of the Bhandara ZP. The Congress, with 21 members, allied with the splinter BJP group, which have 6 members, to get its candidate elected as the Bhandara ZP president, with Patole trumping a Gondia-type NCP-BJP bid here.
While these skirmishes between the Congress and the NCP have been dubbed local squabbles that would not have a bearing on their state-level alliance, there has been a growing sense of worry in the Congress circles that the party has been gradually conceding its space to the NCP in the state.
Since its inception in the late 1990s, the NCP has been expanding its footprint in Maharashtra. In the 1999 state Assembly elections in which the two parties forged a post-poll alliance, the Congress bagged 75 seats and 89.37 lakh votes as compared to the NCP’s 53 seats and 74.25 lakh votes.
Since 1999 the Congress has been on a downward spiral in the state, winning 69 seats in the 2004 Assembly polls, 82 in 2009, 42 in 2014 and 44 in 2019. The NCP’s electoral trajectory has been comparatively better as the party won 71 seats in 2004, 62 in 2009, 41 in 2014 and 54 in 2019.
As the Congress lost its status as a senior partner in their alliance, the NCP continued with its statewide expansion beyond the perception of being just a western Maharashtra-based party.
Since the formation of the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA government in 2019, the NCP has been aggressively poaching the Congress leaders. In January this year, 28 Congress corporators from Malegaon joined the NCP. This came after an ex-Congress MLA from Malegaon switched to the NCP. Similarly, in December 2020, 18 Congress corporators from Bhiwandi joined the NCP fold.
These defections were projected by the NCP to have been caused by local political factors, with the party claiming that it would not have any bearing on the larger MVA alliance.
The NCP has also said that no senior Congress leader barring Patole has gone after it over the Bhandara and Gondia developments, dismissing the state Congress chief’s barbs as his outburst after being outmanoeuvred on his own turf.
Downplaying the Congress-NCP row, Maharashtra Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar said, “Nana’s statement is ridiculous. You all know he joined the Congress after quitting the BJP (in 2018). So, should the BJP allege that he backstabbed it to join the Congress?” He said there could be differences among the Congress and NCP leaders at district-levels, adding that such conflicts would not erupt if there is proper coordination among the MVA constituents.
Other senior MVA leaders also hoped that they would be able to paper over the cracks in the ruling alliance.