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Strongman with a deep grassroots connection

Jul 09, 2024 06:30 AM IST

Nilesh Lanke's victory in Ahmednagar against Sujay Vikhe-Patil is significant in the backdrop of a long-standing feud between Sharad Pawar and the Vikhe-Patils.

The fight for Ahmednagar constituency in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections was ostensibly between the Nationalist Congress Party (SP)’s Nilesh Lanke and sitting member of Parliament Sujay Vikhe-Patil, but both men, in reality, were pieces on the chessboard laid out by Sharad Pawar and his old rival, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil.

Nilesh Lanke (HT photo)
Nilesh Lanke (HT photo)

Their feud goes back to the 1991 Lok Sabha elections when Congressman Yashwantrao Gadakh, backed by Pawar, narrowly defeated Sujay Vikhe-Patil’s grandfather and Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil’s father, Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil, former Union finance minister for state. Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil contested the result in court, which ruled in his favour .

Eighteen years later, in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, a similar scenario played out. Sharad Pawar gave Ramdas Athavale the ticket from the reserved constituency of Shirdi but Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, despite being in the Congress, then in alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party, allegedly used his extensive network in the cooperatives of the region to ensure Athavale’s defeat. Pawar got his own back in 2019 when he refused to cede the Ahmednagar seat to the Congress for Sujay Vikhe-Patil to contest, forcing him to move to the Bharatiya Janata Party and fight an election he went on to win.

It is against this backdrop that Nilesh Lanke’s win from Ahmednagar is consequential. The former Shiv Sainik first shot into prominence for his aggressive style of politics when he was a minor party functionary. Though just a tehsil chief then, Lanke took on the sitting Shiv Sena MLA from Parner, Ramesh Auti, when he did not invite Lanke for a function where Uddhav Thackeray was the chief guest.

Lanke, along with a few hundred of his supporters, barged uninvited into the venue and made a beeline to the dais to touch Uddhav Thackeray’s feet. It is the kind of gesture that would have won over Bal Thackeray but Uddhav, more restrained, was appalled by the melee and left at once. One of the vehicles in the convoy accidentally ran over the leg of Shiv Sena leader Anil Rathod. Lanke and supporters attacked the vehicle from Thackeray’s convoy. Given the Shiv Sena’s hierarchical structure, it was unthinkable in those days for a minor party functionary to attack the Shiv Sena chief’s convoy. Lanke’s days in the party were numbered from then on.

In the 2019 assembly elections, the NCP gave Lanke a ticket to contest the assembly elections from Parner where he defeated the Shiv Sena’s sitting lawmaker Auti.

Besides his derring-do and aggressiveness, Lanke is a strong grassroots organiser and popular with masses of Ahmednagar with many belonging to Maharashtra’s Warkari community. He continues to live in a village called Hanga near an industrial estate and has deep roots in the economic activities in the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation area. There have been allegations in the past about his strong- arm tactics to control the contracts, labour supply and employment related issues in MIDC, allegations that he denies. He uses his political and social influence, he says, to better the lives of workers who owe political allegiance to him. “I ensured that my workers were financially stable through some form of employment or self-employment,” Lanke said.

His foundation, the Nilesh Lanke Pratishthan, undertakes various social schemes and Lanke frequently donated his MLA’s salary of 2.25 lakhs per month to the foundation, a fact that he widely advertised as well. During Covid, he set up a centre named after Sharad Pawar which provided treatment to over 30,000 people in the district, winning plaudits from his boss.

He owns several luxury cars that he says have been given to him by his workers. He was recently photographed with the notorious criminal Gaja Marane, but where others might have been red-faced, Lanke said he wasn’t aware of Marane’s criminal antecedents.

But none of this takes away from Lanke’s superb organisational skills, resource management and imaginative ways of doing politics. When Sharad Pawar decided on his name as the party’s candidate from Ahmednagar opposite Sujay Vikhe-Patil, one of the first things that Lanke did was to organise free shows of the much-loved drama based on the life of Chhatrapati Sambhaji Maharaj called Shivputra Sambhaji across the constituency. Over 300,000 families in Ahmednagar constituency saw the play by the time Lok Sabha elections were officially announced on March 17.

Lanke’s campaign against Sujay Vikhe-Patil was also designed as the battle of a simple man, a people’s leader, against a wealthy and powerful political scion. Sujay Vikhe Patil ridiculed Lanke for his lack of English during the campaign, a move that worked in Lanke’s favour. “How can work as an MP when he does not even speak English?” asked Sujay Vikhe-Patil at a village rally where most in the audience also did not speak English. For his part, Lanke kept his campaign focused on unemployment, agrarian distress and stuck to the common man versus political princeling theme.

For Sharad Pawar who scripted his own remarkable campaign, ensuring wins for eight of his 10 candidates, Lanke’s win in Ahmednagar was special because of the longstanding acrimony with the Vikhe-Patils. He chose to celebrate the Nationalist Congress Party’s 25th Foundation Day on June 10 in Ahmednagar. “You can challenge anybody, but not Sharad Pawar. If you challenge him this is the result,” said Lanke.

There’s more to come, he suggested.

“This was only a trailer; the film is yet to start. In October’s assembly elections we will show you the full picture.”

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