Why is Praful Patel still so privileged in the NCP?

Is it because without Patel, Ajit Pawar can never hope to build a presence in New Delhi?

Patel filed his nomination for the Rajya Sabha elections, representing the NCP from Maharashtra, on 15 February (photo:@praful_patel/X)
Patel filed his nomination for the Rajya Sabha elections, representing the NCP from Maharashtra, on 15 February (photo:@praful_patel/X)

Sujata Anandan

Praful Patel has always been a highly privileged leader in the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) for his suave sophistication, articulate English, and ability to rub shoulders with entrepreneurs and political leaders alike.

In the early days of the NCP,  the lack of all those qualities in himself made Patel indispensable to Sharad Pawar. Today, Pawar's rebel nephew Ajit Pawar needs Patel for the very same reasons, despite having spent the last 20 years cutting Patel down to size.

So the Ajit faction of the NCP is now giving  an unnecessary ticket to Patel for the Rajya Sabha. Patel is already a member, nominated by the united NCP in 2022, and has four years to go to full term. But the sword of disqualification is hanging over his head, and so Ajit has found an escape route by renominating him on his party ticket, since the Election Commission has declared the Ajit faction as the 'real NCP'.

Without Patel, Ajit can never hope to build a presence in New Delhi, and he is hoping Patel will do for him what he did for his uncle over the last 20 years.

But what can Patel really do? Pawar was already a national leader when he split the Congress, though he may have been clumsy in his communication skills. Ajit is completely lacking in national presence and, in addition, is arrogant and lacks his uncle’s conciliatory and bridge-building abilities. He may be tolerated in Maharashtra for who he is, but nationally, he would require much more to make his presence felt at the Centre than merely Patel’s networking.

The fact that, weeks ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, Patel is seeking a mid-term renomination to the Rajya Sabha, depriving another candidate of a full term in the Upper House, also points to his privilege, his injustice to other partymen, and his complete grassroots inability to win Lok Sabha elections.

Patel's constituency is Gondia-Bhandara in Vidarbha and, after their new alliance with the Congress, Pawar compelled Sonia Gandhi to award it to the NCP for Patel, despite the fact that her party already had a sitting MP in place. Patel lost, though in 2009 he won by a very  narrow margin against Nana Patole, who was contesting as an independent.

This, despite the fact that Patel had booked every vehicle to prevent Patole from campaigning, forcing him to conduct his campaign on foot in the scorching heat of May without the benefit of any media support either, since Patel had also booked all available space in every newspaper and channel in the region.

Looking at how close Patole came to defeating Patel single-handed, the BJP picked up the former in 2014, and Patole dealt Patel a resounding defeat on a BJP ticket. But he then fell out with Narendra Modi over the farmers’ agitation of 2020-21 and joined the Congress, resigning his Lok Sabha seat half-way through.

The byelection that came six months later created a quandary for Sharad Pawar. Logically, Patole should have got the ticket from his former constituency, but now Patel dug his heels in and demanded the seat for himself again, failing which he wanted his wife to run from the seat. But all at once, Sharad Pawar ran out of patience.

The manner in which Patel took a nomination to the Rajya Sabha every time he lost the Lok Sabha and returned to the Rajya Sabha again after defeat was fast becoming a farce. So both Pawar and Rahul Gandhi dealt with it with maturity. Patole was persuaded to step back, Patel or any of his family members were denied a ticket, and a little-known politician won with Patole’s help on an NCP ticket.

That seat returned to the BJP in 2019, with Patole abandoning Gondia and taking on Union minister Nitin Gadkari from Nagpur (which he lost). But Gondia has now gone completely out of the hands of both the NCP and Praful Patel — the latter’s only connection to the constituency is an Adani power project and his family beedi factories. General voters continue to be impressed with Patole and the Congress more than the NCP, so the only way that Patel can continue to haunt the corridors of power in New Delhi is by staying in the Rajya Sabha.

With this nomination, he will remain a member for two years longer than an ordinary term, and continue to be useful to Ajit Pawar, a man he has rarely got along with in the past. But as they say, there are no permanent friends and enemies in politics.

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