As the Congress declared its first list of candidates for the Maharashtra assembly polls on September 23 at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi, part of the mise-en-scene was unfolding in faraway Amravati. Sunil Deshmukh, two-time party MLA and minister in the outgoing cabinet, hopped on to his vehicle and, followed by thousands of supporters, wended his way to the local returning office and filed his nomination as an independent. He takes on Rajendra Raosaheb Shekhawat, a relative greenhorn and son of President Pratibha Patil. Deshmukh, a party loyalist, has unwittingly become the face of the Congress rebellion.
“Injustice has been done to me,” he says, “Why should I step aside for anyone, even if he’s the son of the president of India?” Shekhawat’s candidature means one seat less for the party, smirk Congress workers in Amravati. Pratibha Patil’s husband, Devisinh Shekhawat, had lost the seat by over 53,000 votes in the 1995 assembly polls. In 1999, Deshmukh wrested the seat from the Sena with a margin of 10,000-plus votes and retained it last election by over 33,000 votes. He now sees no option but to rebel.
Pratibha Patil and son Rajendra
With Deshmukh are over half a dozen MLAs or prominent local Congress leaders who were overlooked as the party high command chose candidates with dynastic and financial clout, or even rank outsiders. “We always had rebels, some of them won as independents, but this time it’s a large wave,” admitted a top Congress leader. The rebel theme repeats itself in other parties too—the NCP, Shiv Sena and BJP.
No one could have been more shocked than Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, as two enraged groups of Sainiks marched to his bungalow this week, demanding to know why deserving local leaders had been overlooked. One of these groups then ransacked the Dadar house of veteran Sena leader Manohar Joshi, to express anguish over the choice of candidates. The young Sena CEO Uddhav Thackeray spent the better part of the week trying to stop the rebels from filing nomination as independents; he wasn’t entirely successful. Rebellion and show of strength by second- and third-rung leaders is new to the Sena.
“Injustice has been done to me. Why should I step aside for anyone even if he is the son of the president of India?”
Equally affected by rebellion is the BJP. As state chief Nitin Gadkari traded the party’s stronger and winnable seats to ally Shiv Sena, and national general secretary Gopinath Munde secured three nominations for his family—daughter Pankaja, niece Poonam Mahajan and nephew Dhananjay—party workers resigned en masse. Over 120 resignations poured in from across the state, with veteran MLA Vinay Natu heading the list. Natu’s constituency Guhaghar in Konkan was exchanged with the Sena for Ghatkopar West in Mumbai for Poonam Mahajan. But Natu points to a larger phenomenon at work—the BJP conceded to the Sena many urban and sureshot seats. Meanwhile, former BJP MP Anna Joshi has quit the party to contest from Pune on an NCP ticket.
The NCP faces rebellion too. In Kolhapur, former minister Digvijay Khanvilkar will contest as an independent to protest the “giving away” of his seat to the Congress. Another former minister Dilip Sopal has filed nomination as an independent in Barshi, Solapur. Balasaheb Patil from Karad followed suit.
What could be better substantiation of this principle than Raj Thackeray, political and family rebel, aspiring to support either the Congress-NCP coalition or the Sena-BJP alliance to form the next government? Rebellion sure has its rewards. Should Deshmukh trounce Shekhawat, he is assured of a cabinet berth if his party assumes power, never mind the “independent” tag.