FOR THE LAST DECADE, the ever-smiling Sushilkumar Shinde, former Union minister, one-time Lok Sabha leader of the Congress party under the United Progressive Alliance government, and the Congress’s best-known Dalit face, operated largely out of Delhi. In that time, grass-roots politics and election management in his hometown of Solapur in western Maharashtra was left largely in the hands of the 78-year-old local Congressman Vishnupant Kothe. But in the months following this summer’s general election, which swept the UPA out of power and left the Congress facing an uncertain future in many of its former strongholds, it appeared that relations between Shinde and his political confidante had soured. Solapur buzzed with the question of how much longer their arrangement would hold.
Then, on the morning of 6 August, a statement appeared in the local media, in which Kothe pledged his loyalty to Shinde “till the last breath.” That also happened to be the day that Kothe’s son Mahesh, a former mayor of Solapur and leader of the Congress unit at the Solapur Municipal Corporation, travelled nearly 400 kilometres to Mumbai to meet the Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, and be formally inducted into his party.
Ahead of the Maharashtra state elections, likely to be held around Diwali this year, the little drama playing out in Solapur is indicative of the malaise affecting the Congress and its chief partner in the state’s ruling alliance, Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party. The Lok Sabha election results cast an ill omen for both parties; most observers in the state predict a comeback for the BJP–Shiv Sena alliance, which ruled Maharashtra between 1995 and 1999. Narendra Modi’s influence, which helped the BJP–Sena combine win 42 of the state’s 48 seats this summer, is likely to remain strong—and in spite of tensions between the two parties, now jockeying for power within their “Mahayuti,” or grand alliance, both stand to benefit from the after-effects of their sweeping Lok Sabha victory. For the ruling alliance, on the other hand, things look bleak. It is undermined by the competing aspirations of a plethora of caste organisations and individual politicians; and the Kothes’ fallout with Shinde—who is, among other things, the first and only Dalit to have served as the chief minister of Maharashtra—has only further dented, if not erased, its credibility.