How Girish Mahajan is helping BJP poach Congressmen in Maharashtra

The BJP has developed a sweet tooth in Maharashtra this election season. Suddenly, the party is flush with scions of sugar families of western Maharashtra, all moving over from the NCP-Congress fold. Interestingly, there is no rush of either older or younger barons to the doors of its alliance partner, the Shiv Sena.

Maharashtra is the second largest producer of sugar in the country, and sugar production is dominated by cooperative sugar mills controlled by powerful families in western Maharashtra. Now sugarcane is being grown in other parts of the state, too, due to expansion of irrigation. It is apt that the man who is wooing the sugar barons is state Irrigation Minister Girish Mahajan, who comes from northern Maharashtra. The minister’s networking skills have reminded old timers of the way the legendary Pramod Mahajan used to function. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is convinced that the network of sugar barons has been a big strength for the Congress and the NCP, since they control not just sugar mills, but milk and cotton cooperatives, too.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Big districts like Ahmednagar are under the influence of half a dozen sugar barons, but none bigger than the Vikhe Patil family. The family’s founder patriarch, Balasaheb Vikhe Patil, was a long-term Parliament member who used to spar regularly with NCP supremo Sharad Pawar. His son Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil was the leader of the opposition in the state assembly until recently. The Vikhe Patils control the northern belt of Ahmednagar district, including the famous pilgrim centre of Shirdi. The southern side is dominated by NCP MLC Arunkaka Jagtap and BJP’s Kardile Shivaji. Kardile’s elder daughter is married to Arunkaka’s son, Sangram.

Of the district’s two Lok Sabha seats, Ahmednagar went to the NCP as part of the UPA alliance, while Shirdi, which is a reserved constituency, came to the Congress. The NCP fielded Sangram in Ahmednagar. However, the Vikhe Patils had an eye on the constituency. So, they requested Sharad Pawar for an exchange of seats. Pawar recalled his long feud with the older Vikhe Patil; the latter’s grandson, Sujay Vikhe Patil took this an excuse to move to the BJP. Now, Sujay will contest against Sangram, on a BJP ticket, but his father is still with the Congress. Incidentally, in Sangram’s case, his father is with the NCP and father-in-law with the BJP.

In Madha, the constituency once represented by Pawar, a similar drama happened within the NCP fold. Sitting MP Vijaysinh Mohite-Patil, a sugar baron, was annoyed when Pawar announced that he might come out of retirement and run from Madha. This was the chance for Mahajan to woo Mohite-Patil. When Pawar decided not to contest, the NCP ticket went to Mohite-Patil’s rival sugar baron Sanjay Shinde. Mohite-Patil joined the BJP on March 21.

Another sugar baron to quit the Congress is ex-Sangli MP Pratik Patil, grandson of onetime Congress strongman Vasantrao B. Patil aka Vasantdada Patil. Pratik was miffed that the seat was given to the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana—a movement of sugarcane farmers. He is yet to join a party as the BJP did not offer him a ticket. Mahajan unsuccessfully tried to woo Indapur’s sugar king Harshavardhan Patil, too.

Western Maharashtra was an arid land for the saffron party until 2014. That year, the Modi effect and strong anti-incumbency against the Congress-NCP changed the BJP’s fortunes. Now Fadnavis hopes the barons will help consolidate the votes, but some of the families are playing safe by dividing their presence between the rival fronts. The results can be bittersweet for some families, and even for the rival fronts.