Soft-spoken and shrewd Thorat has a tough task ahead
About two decades back, when Sharad Pawar was in the process of floating the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) after he was expelled from the Congress, he was in touch with several Congress leaders and invited them to join his party. One of them was Congress’ member of Legislative Assembly from Sangamner in Ahmednagar district, Balasahab Thorat. Pawar knew both Balasaheb and his father Bhausaheb — a respected name in the cooperative sector — well. It was a time when many in Maharashtra politics believed Pawar would completely take over Congress’ space. Balashaeb was contemplating Pawar’s offer but was prevented by his father from joining the Maratha strongman. Bhausaheb advised him to never leave the Congress because they were committed to its ideology. Twenty years later, Thorat must be happy that he listened to his father’s advice. He is now leading the Congress in Maharashtra.
The party leadership thinks Thorat’s soft-spoken nature would unite warring factions within the state unit when the party needs all hands on deck in its difficult time. Further, his cordial relations with Pawar are likely to help better coordination between the two parties as they are contesting the upcoming Assembly elections together. Winning the state would be crucial for the survival of both parties. Can Thorat deliver it for the Congress?
Though he keeps a low profile, Thorat is known as a shrewd politician. From a junior minister in the first Congress-NCP government in 1999, to the key post of revenue minister in 2010, to suddenly becoming a member of the Congress Working Committee — the highest decision making body of the party — in 2018, to now the state Congress president, Thorat’s journey has been surprising for many. He has earned the reputation of a politician who quietly works behind the scenes. He worked closely with Vilasrao Deshmukh, who became chief minister in 1999, and remained a loyal colleague till Deshmukh passed away in 2012. In Congress, any prominent leader in the state has to have the support of a few top leaders in Delhi. Thorat quietly earned the backing of the party’s central leaders — most of whom were earlier Deshmukh’s backers. His skills to win over friends will now be put to the test as he will have to bring warring Congress leaders together.
The party that saw many ups and downs since Independence is witnessing its worst-ever period in Maharashtra now. Its tally in the Assembly reduced to an all-time low of 42 in the 2014 elections. It could win only one seat in the recent Lok Sabha polls. Several party leaders, including Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil (who was the Opposition leader in the Assembly for the last four and a half years), have defected to ruling parties for greener pastures. A few more MLAs are likely to cross over to BJP-Shiv Sena in the coming days. The party’s rank are in a demoralised state. Nobody is confident if the party will return to power in Maharashtra. Senior leaders are still trying to score over one another. The party is facing a cash-crunch.
Thorat has been given five executive presidents to help him handle the party and elections — Nitin Raut and Yashomati Thakur from Vidarbha, Vishwajit Kadam from western Maharashtra, Basavraj Patil from Marathwada and Muzaffar Hussain, who comes from Mira Road near Mumbai, considered as a representative of Konkan region. Party leadership has tried to put together a combination of Maratha, Kunbi, Dalit, Muslim and Lingayat leaders while appointing the executive presidents. Can they attract the sections that they come from? Partymen are not sure.
Reviving the party in such a situation would be an unenviable job and leading it to victory in the coming Assembly elections will be a tough task. Not many in his party would be willing to bet their money on him. Will Thorat be able to spring the surprise of his life?