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From the Thackerays to the Mundes, family spats in the public have become a leitmotif of Maharashtra’s politics.

On Wednesday, estranged cousins and political rivals Dhananjay Munde of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the BJP’s Pankaja Munde took digs at each other during the inauguration of renowned ophthalmologist Dr Tatyarao Lahane’s hospital in Mumbai in the presence of NCP president Sharad Pawar. The two leaders took the jibes through a play on the word lens, one of the tools of an ophthalmologist’s trade.

“The guardian minister of our Beed district and our brother Dhananjay Munde…Very few people have been fortunate enough to see through the lenses of Pawar saheb after having grown up looking through the lenses of Munde-Mahajan,” Pankaja said, referring to BJP leaders Gopinath Munde, her father, and Pramod Mahajan under whose guidance Dhananjay started his political career before quitting the BJP to join the Pawar-led party in 2013.

Responding to his cousin’s comments, the NCP leader said, “‘Taai (sister)’, sometimes one has to come under the focus of lenses. I was speaking to Aaditya Thackeray a while ago and he said it would be nice if ‘taai’ changed the lenses and used that of the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA, the ruling alliance). He said that, not me.”

The tension between the two cousins stems from the fight over the political legacy of Gopinath Munde, who died in 2014. Groomed by his uncle, the 46-year-old Dhananjay cut his political teeth as a youth BJP worker before being elevated as the Bhartiya Janata Yuva Morcha’s state president in 2007. Dhananjay, a good orator, was seen as a close confidant of Gopinath. Along with his father Panditrao Munde, Dhananjay was given the responsibility of nurturing Gopinath’s constituency of Parli and looking after the family’s political interests in Beed district. At the time, Dhananjay was seen as the BJP stalwart’s political heir.

But the relationship between the uncle and the nephew soured in 2009 when Gopinath overlooked Dhananjay and chose Pankaja to represent Parli. Pankaja, 42, studied MBA in Bengaluru but dropped out of the programme to marry Dr Amit Palve when she was 21 and moved to the US in 2001. She returned to India after three years and settled in Pune. Her father’s decision to choose her as the inheritor of his political legacy sowed the early seeds of disaffection between her and Dhananjay.

Despite the saffron party trying to placate Dhananjay by making him a member of the state Legislative Council in 2010, the relationship between him and Gopinath started going downhill and led to Dhananjay’s alienation in the party.

The final straw, however, was Dhananjay’s insistence on making one of his supporters the city council president in the Parli Municipal Council despite his uncle’s opposition. The younger Munde, who managed to get his nominee elected, claimed that Gopinath was getting insecure about his growing influence in Beed. The BJP leadership sided with Gopinath. Left with no options Dhananjay hedged his bets and invited NCP leader and Gopinath Munde’s arch-rival Ajit Pawar to a rally in Parli in January 2012. Panditanna joined the NCP at the event.

Though Dhananjay cosied up to the NCP, it took him two more years to resign from the BJP. In July 2013, he resigned from the saffron party and the legislative council before joining the NCP. The party fielded him in the 2014 Assembly polls from Parli but he lost to Pankaja Munde by more than 25,000 votes. Pankaja was made a cabinet minister in the Devendra Fadnavis-led government.

Fight for Beed

Gopinath Munde’s death in an accident in June 2014 put the two cousins in direct conflict as they both tried to assert their influence in Beed. The NCP bet big on Dhananjay and made him the Leader of the Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Council in December 2014. In the 2019 Assembly elections, Dhananjay managed to trump his cousin by winning Parli by more than 30,000 votes. While Dhananjay has his power base in the constituency, the speculation in political circles at the time was that Pankaja’s defeat was a result of the state BJP’s internal power struggle as she had presented herself as a contender for the chief minister’s chair. Dhananjay was also believed to have had secret backing from a section of the state BJP.

Since 2019, the cousins have tried to keep a low profile. While her electoral defeat and her relationship with the current BJP top brass in the state have caused Pankaja to keep to Beed, Dhananjay Munde has been embroiled in a controversy involving a former live-in partner (with whom he has two children) and her sister who has accused him of rape. Last month, when Dhananjay was admitted to a hospital in Mumbai after a health scare, the cousins made conciliatory gestures. But, as Wednesday’s episode shows, the fight for dominance in Beed trumps everything else.

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