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|February 20, 1998|
Sudhakar Naik is out to avenge his 1996 defeat
The denial of a nomination to sitting Shiv Sena MP Pundalik Gawali is working to the advantage of Congress candidate and former Maharashtra chief minister Sudhakarrao Naik in Washim.
Gawali had inflicted a shock defeat on Naik in 1996 in the constituency that had never before returned a non-Congress candidate. However, the Sena leadership replaced Gawali with Dhaneshwar Shewale this time. Though there are eight candidates in the field, the contest is essentially between Naik and Shewale.
There is an undercurrent of resentment among Gawali's supporters over the denial of the ticket, and the Congress is exploiting this. The Sena leadership has defended its decision, saying Shewale is a better candidate.
Not taking any chances, the party has sent its deputy leader Vilas Awachat to coordinate the election campaign and ensure the Shewale's victory.
For Naik, it is a do-or-die battle. If he bites the dust this time, it would, political observers say, send him into political oblivion. Taking this into account, Naik is leaving no stone unturned and is vigorously campaigning in the constituency along with members of his clan. He has even mended fences with his bete noire, former chief minister Sharad Pawar.
In 1996, Naik had snubbed Pawar by not inviting him to address any meeting in the constituency, saying he needed no help from any leader. This time, he not only invited Pawar for campaigning but openly acknowledged his leadership.
Till 1996, Washim was considered the pocket borough of the Naik family. It is dominated by Naik's Banjara community. Sudhakar Naik's uncle, Vasantrao Naik, who had a record 11-year tenure as chief minister of the state, won the Lok Sabha poll by a margin of over 100,000 votes in 1977, surviving the Janata Party wave. Considered a safe seat, the Congress fielded Ghulam Nabi Azad, a Kashmiri, as its candidate in 1980 and 1984, winning both times.
In 1996, the candidature of former MLA and Banjara leader Makhram Pawar contributed to Naik's defeat, since he managed to take away 90,000 votes. Naik ended up losing to Gawali by 17,000 votes. The situation has changed this time, with Naik and Makhram Pawar coming to terms. In fact, Naik reversed his decision not to contest this time on health grounds, after his patch-up with his community leader.
Washim has four assembly segments: Karanja, Mangrulpir, Medshi and Washim in Akola district, besides two segments, Pusad and Umarkhed, in Yavatmal district. Naik himself is from Pusad.
There has been considerable speculation in political circles over Naik's likely entry into the Shiv Sena or floating a new party after being sidelined by the Congress leadership last year. Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray had called on Naik at his Bombay home and reportedly offered him the post of chairman of the state government's water conservation scheme or ideal village scheme.
The Thackeray-Naik friendship apparently ended with the Sena leader describing Naik as a sick person unfit to run for the Lok Sabha, and calling for his defeat at his election rally at Pusad ten days ago.
Naik's adversaries say the former Himachal Pradesh governor has done nothing for the constituency. A group of tribals stoned his campaign vehicle last Friday at Dhanora village, saying their village faced perennial water shortage but the candidate did not address the problem.
UNI in Washim
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