MUMBAI: Even for a man who is credited with building up the BJP in Maharashtra, former Deputy Chief Minister and the party’s deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, Gopinath Munde, is seen as facing the toughest test in his political career so far with his elder brother Panditanna and nephew Dhananjay, a legislator, cosying up with the rival NCP, led by his bête noir Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.
In a severe political setback to Gopinath (62), a powerful OBC leader and the party’s face in Maharashtra, Panditanna joined the NCP on January 19 in presence of Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar in a show of strength in the Munde bastion of Parli in Beed district, located in the state’s arid Marathwada region. Dhananjay is said to be ready to take the plunge at the right time.
Gopinath, who belongs to the Vanjari community, is credited with having built up the BJP in Maharashtra along with his late brother-in-law Pramod Mahajan, and is the party’s most popular face in the state though he has been marginalised in the state party affairs in the last few years.
Gopinath, who was launched in mainstream politics by senior BJP leader Vasantrao Bhagwat and rose to become its bahujan face in the state, was first elected to the state legislative assembly from the Renapur constituency in 1980 but suffered a shock defeat in 1985. He, however, recovered from the setback to be elected to the Assembly for four times after 1990, becoming the leader of the Opposition in 1992 and the Deputy Chief Minister in 1995. While Panditanna, who also involved in district politics, was his younger brother’s constituency manager, Dhananjay or Dhanu as he is called was being groomed as his uncle’s political successor through Zilla Parishad politics and the BJP youth wing.
However, when Gopinath decided to enter national politics and successfully contested the Lok Sabha polls from Beed, he sprung a surprise by fielding eldest daughter Pankaja Munde-Palwe from his assembly constituency overriding Dhananjay’s claims, which is where family insiders claim the first spark flew. Though Dhananjay was elected to the state legislative council in 2010, he was said to be unhappy at this “backdoor entry” amid reports of his flirtations with Ajit Pawar.
Last year, Panditanna’s son-in-law Dr Madhusudan Kendre quit the BJP to join the NCP in what was seen as the precursor to bigger things to follow. Gopinath’s machinations to ensure the defeat of Panditanna’s daughter Urmila as the NCP municipal chief of Gangakhed in Parbhani was said to be the last straw which broke the camel’s back before the fallout between the uncle- nephew duo came over the elections to the Parli municipal council where Dhananjay rebelled against his uncle.
“Munde saheb (Gopinath) did not feel the need to reach out to voters at the village level as this was done by his brother and nephew. In these changed circumstances, what will it portend politically for him?”questioned Kendre, blaming Gopinath for “playing it by the ear” and being “surrounded by a coterie”. He added that the younger generation was choosing to stand by Dhananjay, who was more accessible to them.
In the function where he joined the NCP, the Gandhi cap clad Panditanna spewed fire and vowed to ensure that his younger brother was defeated in the coming polls. Meanwhile, Gopinath blamed Ajit for splitting his family even as his stronghold and home turf of Beed seemed to be under threat. There are indications that Dhananjay or Panditanna may be fielded against the Munde father-daughter duo by the NCP in the coming polls, prompting parallels to be drawn with yet another bickering uncle-nephew duo—the Thackerays .
However, BJP leaders admitted that Gopinath had chosen to further the interests of his own family members and acolytes neglecting genuine party workers and pointed out that he had alienated many of his supporters even from his home district including old friend, fellow Sangh Parivar traveller and former BJP MP Jaisingh Gaikwad Patil, who chose to jump ship to the NCP in 2004 and has since returned to the BJP. They added that this had resulted in the BJP winning just two assembly seats in Marathwada in 2009.
“If you have some honesty left, resign as a MLC and go wherever you please,” demanded BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari, adding that disciplinary action would be taken against Dhananjay soon.