Khadse’s association with the BJP lasted 40 years and he was elected on a BJP ticket for six consecutive terms from 1989 onwards from Muktainagar in north Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district. But, in 2016 he had a fall out with the incumbent Leader of Opposition and then Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. He was forced to resign as a minister from the BJP government over charges of corruption and irregularities in a land deal. Khadse was sidelined in the party and four years later, failing to make much headway, jumped ship to the NCP. He blamed Fadnavis for his decision to quit the party.
Khadse, however, did not immediately get a position of his choice in the NCP. He did not find a Cabinet berth in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) alliance government and his name in the governor’s nominees to the legislative council was rejected in November 2020. The council elections now present him with an opportunity to make a comeback in state politics.
Though his nomination was not liked by all in his current party, it indicates that the party wants to use him to counter his bête noire Fadnavis, who last week played a central role in getting all his party’s candidates elected to the Rajya Sabha and left the MVA questioning its strategy.
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NCP state president Jayant Patil said, “We chose two senior candidates Ramraje Nimbalkar and Eknath Khadse. Their experience and knowledge will help the organisation. The party had to placate several in-house aspirants before giving approval to Khadse’s name.”
A senior NCP leader told The Indian Express, “We can speak on certain issues. It will be like a debate on certain policies or politics. But Khadse is unlimited. He has worked in BJP for four decades. So, he can attack BJP and Fadnavis uninhibited. In politics, after all, perception matters to a great extent.”
After his candidature was announced, Khadse hit out at his former party colleague, saying, “Fadnavis was one who systematically worked to undermine my political career in the BJP. Even today, a large number of BJP leaders still sympathise with me. I have decided to move ahead. I will work wholeheartedly for the NCP’s expansion in north Maharashtra. I am grateful to Sharad Pawar for reposing faith in me and giving me the opportunity to contest for the council seat.”
Compared to the Congress, which needs eight additional votes to get its two candidates elected, the NCP needs just one from either its coalition partners or from the small parties and Independents backing the MVA. Sources said Khadse had started contacting certain disgruntled BJP MLAs close to him and was banking on support from the Other Backward Class (OBC) community. “In the Rajya Sabha polls, the Shiv Sena lost one seat because we were careless. We cannot afford to be complacent. We have to remain alert,” he said.
According to NCP insiders, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar is trying his level best to get Khadse elected. After Congress leaders approached him for help, Pawar is also trying to get the party the additional votes it requires and is holding talks with small parties and Independents who support the MVA.
Though the BJP has claimed that it is not targeting any party or individual, with Fadnavis saying that the party was concentrating only on the victory of all five of its candidates, a senior party functionary told The Indian Express, “We would like to make the election difficult for Khadse.”
The BJP is said to be trying to exploit discontent within the Shiv Sena and the NCP in north Maharashtra to turn the tables against Khadse who is trying to reach out to MLAs in his former party with whom he has had a long association.
But some in the Opposition party are not worried, pointing out how Khadse had failed to get his daughter Rohini Khadse-Khewalkar elected from his home constituency in the 2019 Assembly polls. They also claimed that he had failed to bring over a large number of his supporters to the NCP. Khadse’s daughter-in-law is two-time Raver MP Raksha Khadse who is still in the BJP.