Eknath Khadse, considered the third strongest leader in the Maharashtra BJP after chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari, has suffered a serious political setback.
Number two in the government after the CM, he had to resign following a series of allegations of wrongdoing, including a land deal involving a conflict of interest.
It’s too early to say if and when he will make a comeback. Though Fadnavis has promptly announced a probe by a retired High Court judge into the allegations, such inquiries take a year or two or even more. And if there are court cases to be fought, Khadse will have to wait even longer. And there is no guarantee he will be reinstated even if he is cleared of the allegations.
It appears the old order in the Maharashtra BJP is fading, with yet another leader from the Munde-Mahajan era sidelined. For about a decade-and-a-half since the early 1990s, the Pramod Mahajan-Gopinath Munde duo controlled the Maharashtra BJP.
They junked the old leaders and promoted a new batch of leaders under Munde (Mahajan was interested in national politics and left the state to Munde). Following Mahajan’s death, Gadkari emerged as a new leader in the state and Munde lost some ground to him. But Munde would have been CM if he hadn’t passed away before the 2014 Assembly elections. The Munde-Mahajan faction became weaker following his death, with Khadse its last prominent leader. Munde’s daughter Pankaja, the rural development minister in the state, is yet to prove her mettle.
The state BJP is now largely divided between the two poles -- Gadkari and Fadnavis. Gadkari has established himself as a key member of the Modi cabinet but keeps a keen eye on what is happening back home.
Following the Khadse episode, Fadnavis appears stronger than ever. Inside the government, Khadse was the only one who could confront him with authority. Now, barring finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, there is no one in the cabinet who can say a thing or two to the CM. But even Mungantiwar doesn’t have Khadse’s statewide clout though he remains a contender for the top job.
Fadnavis’ political-management skills will be put to test in the coming days. There are chances that Khadse will play the Other Backward Classes (OBC) card to return to the state cabinet. It is not clear whether Fadnavis will promote other OBC leaders such as Pankaja Munde or Mungantiwar or encourage a new OBC leadership.
Fadnavis’ advantage is the strong support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah. This is why none of the senior ministers stood behind Khadse when it was decided to remove him from the cabinet.
Does this mean Fadnvais will grow even stronger and other senior leaders in the state BJP will get marginalised?
It is too early to draw such a conclusion.
In the parties where the central leadership is strong, leaders in the states never get absolute power. As long as the top leadership of the party has faith in him, Fadnavis will remain strong. What will also matter is his ability to win elections for the party.
So far he has not proved it. He will get that chance in 2017 when municipal bodies governing major cities, including Mumbai and the district councils go to the polls. The “mini-Assembly” elections of 2017 could be the next turning point for the BJP in the state.