Pankaja in fight to stay relevant in Maha’s politics

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By Mahtab Ahmad

(This story originally appeared in Pankaja in fight to stay relevant in Maha’s politics on May 12, 2024)

CHHATRAPATI SAMBHAJINAGAR (AURANGABAD): Until last June, Pankaja Munde had her eyes on Maharashtra’s Parli assembly seat that her cousin and NCP member Dhananjay Munde had snatched in 2019. That loss and her earlier remark: “I am the CM in people’s mind” had led to her “isolation” within the state BJP, so starting the groundwork 17 months before the state polls was understandable.
But when Dhananjay and some other NCP legislators led by Ajit Pawar joined the Mahayuti (BJP plus chief minister Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena) govt last year, Pankaja withdrew her claim on Parli, and rumours of her candidature from Beed Lok Sabha seat whirled.Finally, on March 13, BJP declared Pankaja its Beed candidate in place of her younger sister Pritam.
Caught In Caste Calculus
Beed is a water-starved constituency where many take up the traditional job of sugarcane harvesting. Lack of industrial development has halted its growth, and the district headquarters is still without a rail link. It is also a constituency plagued by caste divisions.
The Maratha demand for reservation has soured relations with OBCs, who fear losing a share of their quota. In fact, Beed was the only Maharashtra district that saw widespread violence during last year’s Maratha agitation.
Pankaja, daughter of late BJP MP and former state deputy CM Gopinath Munde, is the party’s OBC face, and her campaign convoy has been stopped by ‘protesters’ at least a couple of times recently, although she’s said she favours a separate Maratha quota. “My opponents are trying to polarise voters in the name of caste. I am, however, keen to take people from all castes and creeds along,” Pankaja said at a recent campaign rally.
She’s found endorsement from Union minister Nitin Gadkari, who told people at a rally, “You can come to me seeking solutions to road infrastructure problems only if you vote for Pankaja.”

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Tough Match With Sharad Pawar Camp
Keeping the caste factor in mind, Sharad Pawar’s NCP (SCP) has renominated Bajrang Sonawane, a Maratha who was vice chairman of Beed zilla parishad and, briefly, deputy CM in Ajit Pawar’s camp. Sonawane got the ticket because he had bagged more than 5 lakh votes in the 2019 LS poll that he lost to Pritam Munde.
Sonwane recently said the Beed contest with Pankaja would be a cakewalk for him. “There is no neck-and-neck fight. My opponent is in no position to put up a tough contest as she is hardly available in Beed.”
His state unit chief Jayant Patil accused BJP of failing to develop the constituency. “We are confident that MVA – Congress, NCP (SCP), Shiv Sena (UBT) alliance – is winning at least 33 Lok Sabha seats, including Beed. We will have to send Bajrang to Delhi for the district’s development.”
Attacking the Munde family, Sonawane said, “Vaidyanath cooperative sugar mill, controlled by the Mundes, went bankrupt. Sugarcane growers, transporters and cane cutters have not been paid. Before splurging on their poll campaigns, the Munde cousins should answer these people.”
Much At Stake For Munde Heir
Gopinath Munde died in an accident on June 3, 2014 and Pankaja has been seen as his political heir. She was cabinet minister from 2014 to 2019 in the Devendra Fadnavis-led BJP govt. But she’s been without a seat since her loss in 2019, and analysts say this poll is a test of her relevance in Maharashtra’s political landscape.
Pankaja has her cousin Dhananjay’s support this time, and it could bolster her prospects. “Differences with Dhananjay are a thing of the past. We were together even before Lok Sabha elections were announced,” she said.
BJP’s Maratha stalwarts like MLC Suresh Dhas, ex-MLC Amarsinha Pandit and Nilanga MLA Sambhaji Patil Nilangekar have shown their support for Pankaja to prevent run-ins with quota supporters.
As for the ‘audacious’ remark that isolated her and caused a ‘rift’ with former CM Devendra Fadnavis, Pankaja says, “My statement was read out of context… I never expressed a desire to become CM on any platform. My differences with Fadnavis are also hearsay.”
With her house finally in order, Pankaja might not be watching her back, but she needs all her focus for the May 13 duel, which is a Munde-Sonawane and BJP-NCP (SCP) re-match with the extra dimension of OBC vs Maratha this time.

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