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September 4, 1999

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Constituency/Sangli, Maharashtra

It's all in the family

Pankaj Upadhyaya in Sangli

When Vasant Patil, the four-time chief minister of Maharashtra popularly known as 'Dada', was alive, he took pride in the fact that anybody from his family could win an election from Sangli with ease. Today, two members of the Patil clan are ranged against each other for the Lok Sabha election in Sangli, and one of them must lose.

The Congress in this small town in western Maharashtra, widely considered the capital of the state's prosperous sugar belt, was sharply divided when Sharad Pawar quit to form the Nationalist Congress Party three months ago.

At the centre of the division was the late Dada's family, which had nurtured the party in the region for over 40 years. While Dada's brother Vishnu 'Anna' Patil, his son Madan, and the former chief minister's second wife Shalini went with Pawar, his son Prakash stayed back in the parent party. And now the cousins are facing off in what promises to be a keen contest.

Political observers, however, say the Patil family was always deeply divided, and the only difference now is that the fašade of unity that they had put up for so long has crumbled.

In the 1995 election to the state assembly, Madan Patil had contested as an independent against Prakash Patil, thus tilting the balance in favour of Sambhaji Pawar of the Janata Dal, who won comfortably.

It is common knowledge that in the 1998 Lok Sabha election, Prakash Patil, wiser after his experience of 1995, supported Madan Patil's candidature on a Congress ticket on the condition that the latter would return the favour in the assembly election. He had also demanded a commitment from his cousin that he would not interfere in the working of the Vasantdada Co-operative Sugar Factory, which Prakash Patil currently controls.

Madan Patil won with a huge margin, but the arrangement between the two cousins came apart as soon as he decided to join the NCP.

Today, while Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi dominate the national electoral scene, the main issue in Sangli is which of Madan and Prakash is the rightful inheritor of Vasantdada's political legacy.

Both have staked their claim to the huge vote bank that is still loyal to Dada. In both houses, life-size portraits of the former chief minister find pride of place. And the campaign material of both parties liberally uses his pictures.

But in this fight for Dada's legacy, Prakash Patil has a slight edge. After all he is Dada's son while Madan is only a nephew. Prakash Patil also controls the all-powerful sugar co-operative and is seen as a friendly man who helps people in need. Madan Patil's image is that of a spoilt brat.

Yet, the phenomenal strength of the NCP in Sangli district will certainly work in Madan Patil's favour. Of the eight MLAs from the district (two more assembly constituencies in Sangli district fall in the neighbouring Karad and Pandharpur Lok Sabha constituencies), six have joined the NCP's ranks. While four of them were Congress rebels who had contested the 1995 election as independents supported on the sly by Pawar, two belong to the Janata Dal, now an ally of the NCP.

This provides Madan Patil with a strong base. In fact, had it not been for the division of votes in the pro-Dada camp, he would have romped home with ease.

But while the exodus of leaders from the Congress points to some erosion of the party's support base, that is not the ground reality. Prakash Patil, by virtue of being Vasantdada's son, has committed followers in every village. His palatial bungalow just across the road from the sugar co-operative he controls was teeming with party workers when rediff.com visited him. By comparison, Madan Patil's house, where he stays with his father Anna, looked deserted.

Meanwhile, as the two claimants to Dada's legacy battle it out, the Bharatiya Janata Party has got a new lease of life. BJP politicians are positive that the division in the traditional Congress votes will help their candidate Rajendra Dange, son of Sangli's Guardian Minister Anna Dange.

But this advantage is limited and may not be the deciding factor. And ultimately it may still be a member of Sangli's first family who will emerge the winner.

Constituency

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