THE ARREST of 69-year-old Padamsinh Patil is salt in the wounds of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), already wincing from its recent electoral defeat. This is because Patil has been one of party chief Sharad Pawar’s closest aides since the latter formed the Congress(S) and later, the NCP. Patil is accused of murder.
“In coalition politics, such moves are understandable. There’s nothing new in this,” says DP Tripathi, senior leader and spokesperson for the NCP. In the recent Lok Sabha polls, the NCP won only eight seats compared to its ally Congress’ 17. The arrest of Patil, the only leader from the NCP to win from central Maharashtra, has the party smarting further. The doctor-turned-politician and MP from Osmanabad is accused of killing Pawanraje Nimbalkar, his paternal cousin and a senior Congress leader. When Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar read the charges against Patil in the House on June 8, Pawar quietly stepped out. The man once known for his prime ministerial aspirations and as a kingmaker in Maharashtra politics, had felt cut to size by the Congress.
A seven-time MLA, an ex-home minister of Maharashtra and Pawar’s brother-in-law, Patil was, in 1990, even nominated as the NCP’s chief ministerial candidate. His arrest, three years after the case was filed, has more to do with political games than with the law. The feud with Nimbalkar is said to be over a sugar cooperative factory, but it reeks of a power struggle among the sugar barons in the Osamanabad and Latur belts, controlled mostly by NCP and Congress leaders. Patil allegedly put a supari (contract) on Nimbalkar because the latter and social activist Anna Hazare had blown the whistle on the financial irregularities in Patil’s Terna sugar cooperative trust.
The Maharashtra Government had given Patil a clean chit earlier, citing the inadmissibility of a narco-analysis test of a key suspect named Padamsinh. Last year, the CBI took over the investigation. A senior NCP leader close to Pawar says, “Leaders like the Congress’ Narayan Rane have been accused of murder but they’ve been shielded. Why arrest him now? The CBI does not take a single step without being led by the [Congress-led] central government.” This accusation, however, does not bear out because it was during Congressman Vilasrao Deshmukh’s term that the clean chit was given.
The arrest made Pawar, once kingmaker of Maharashtra, feel cut to size by the Congress
When contacted, Sharad Pawar refused to comment, saying the matter was sub judice. However, the man who’s made the most of the situation is Union Heavy Industry minister and Pawar’s archrival, Vilasrao Deshmukh who said, “We cannot have an alliance with a party whose leaders are involved in the murder of our own men.” Interestingly, Deshmukh is one of Patil’s competitors in the sugar cooperative sector in Osmanabad and Latur.
The NCP believes the arrest is the Congress’ way of gathering points before the state assembly elections, less than four months away. The NCP is terrified of any further missteps which will hurt its bargaining power during seat-sharing talks for the forthcoming assembly election. Much to the NCP’s chagrin, its leader PA Sangma has apologised to Sonia Gandhi for opposing her position as the president of the Congress on the basis of her foreign origins. Political compulsions had seen Pawar putting the foreign origin issue on the back burner, but Sangma’s open apology has displeased Pawar. TEHELKA asked Pawar’s daughter Supria Sule if a split between the NCP and the Congress was imminent. Sule’s response revealed the sticky situation the NCP finds itself in. “I wouldn’t want to react to hypothetical questions,” Sule said, adding, “We have an alliance with the Congress and it shall continue.” A cornered NCP has adopted a wait-and-watch stance, saying Patil is innocent till proven guilty.