The importance of Ashok Chavan

February 21,2024

With the exit of senior party leader and former Maharashtra chief minister, Ashok Chavan, the Congress has lost one of its biggest state leaders with political and electoral organisational heft. Chavan’s entry into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after a nearly five-decade association with the Congress is widely being seen as part of BJP’s juggernaut to secure maximum Lok Sabha seats in Maharashtra, the state with the second highest number of Lok Sabha seats, at 48. However, political observers have noted that Chavan’s exit is more a loss for the Congress party than a win for the BJP. What makes Ashok Chavan so relevant, if at all, in Maharashtra politics today?

Son of one of the tallest political leaders from Maharashtra, former chief minister (CM), Shankarrao Chavan, Ashok Chavan has a strong political legacy, one that he did not squander. He was one of the Congress party’s most prominent faces in Marathwada, especially after senior politician and former CM Vilasrao Deshmukh’s demise in 2012. Chavan is credited with retaining a strong grip over his family assembly seat Bhokar, and influencing the Congress party’s electoral outcomes in both his home district of Nanded as well as the larger Marathwada region, which elects 46 of the 288 state legislative assembly members. Despite BJP’s ascendancy, Congress had managed to put up a decent performance in Marathwada in the 2019 assembly polls. Chavan’s exit is now expected to considerably erode Congress’ electoral chances in Marathwada.

Chavan served as a minister in three successive Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP)-led state governments since 1999, holding portfolios including industries, urban development, tourism, and transport. He was picked as chief minister of Maharashtra in 2008 after Deshmukh was forced to step down after the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai that year. Within a few months of taking over, CM Chavan successfully led the Congress in the 2009 general election, and in the assembly polls later that year. In both elections, Congress emerged as the largest party in Maharashtra, bagging 17 Lok Sabha seats and 82 legislators, nearly 20 seats more than its ally NCP. While Chavan won a second tenure as Maharashtra CM after these elections, he had to step down in 2010 after his name cropped up in the Adarsh housing scam. Many within the Congress feel that Chavan’s ouster from the CM’s post without a formal indictment from the investigative agencies proved to be detrimental for the party. 

“His successor Prithviraj Chavan’s tenure was marked by Congress-NCP infighting and political scams like irrigation. While Prithviraj had a clean image, he did not have a hold over district-level politics or acumen for electoral management. Besides the Modi wave, this lack of strong leadership in the state post Deshmukh’s demise in 2012 coupled with the sidelining of Chavan cost us in the 2014 polls and we haven’t recovered since then,’’ said a senior Congress leader, who did not want to be named.

In the 2014 general elections, despite the overarching Narendra Modi wave which saw the BJP win 23 of Maharashtra’s 48 seats and the Congress almost wiped out, Ashok Chavan managed to win the Nanded Lok Sabha seat, while his wife Ameeta won the assembly seat later that year from his pocket borough, Bhokar. Chavan was one of only two MPs elected on the Congress ticket in Maharashtra in 2014. The other, Rajeev Satav, also won the Hingoli Lok Sabha seat in Marathwada thanks to support from Chavan. While Chavan failed to retain his Lok Sabha seat in 2019, he won the Bhokar assembly seat in the state polls later that year with a good margin. Out of six assembly seats in the Nanded district, three were won by the Congress in an election where it had been pushed to the fourth largest party in the state assembly. Given Chavan’s tendency to put up a good fight, BJP had categorized Nanded as a difficult Lok Sabha target seat even for the 2024 polls. “With his entry in the BJP, Nanded as well as Hingoli seats in Marathwada are now a clear win for the saffron party. Chavan understands state politics, he also has a good grip on electoral mobilizing and strategy, which is sorely lacking in the remaining state Congress leaders. He still enjoys the support of at least seven to eight MLAs, so he was an obvious choice for the BJP to poach,’’ said Mrunalini Naniwadekar, associate editor of Sakal newspaper.

Chavan’s exit leaves Congress bereft of political leaders who have the clout and political base to lead the party in elections. “More than a win for the BJP, Chavan’s exit is a big loss for the Congress. Chavan was a prominent face and perhaps the last party leader standing with a distinct political identity and capability of organising and leading the party in elections,’’ said political analyst Abhay Deshpande. The three or four remaining big leaders in Congress include former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, state party president Nana Patole, and former minister Balasaheb Thorat. There are several next-generation leaders but they do not have any base or identity beyond their constituencies.

Ashok Chavan is also a prominent Maratha face in the state. In the Uddhav Thackeray-led Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress government, he was heading the state sub-committee on the Maratha reservation. His identity also gives him salience in the state and the upcoming polls, in which the issue of Maratha reservation will play a crucial role.