Cong gives Sena a run for its money in Ratnagiri, a near walkover in Rajapur
Sandesh Prabhudesai in Ratnagiri
The chakarmani, the head of the Konkani family, usually works in Bombay. So, given their conservative nature, it is natural that the choices of the people of Ratnagiri and Rajapur constituencies of the Konkan region reflect those of their elders in Bombay.
So the battle in these places, in Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg districts of coastal Maharashtra, the fight here is between the Shiv Sena and a resurgent Congress.
The Sena has an edge in both constituencies since, being in control over 11 of the 12 assembly segments, it has total control over the infrastructure. These districts also sport three state ministers and the declaration of Ratnagiri as a horticulture zone and Sindhudurg as a tourism zone, and the development of the Konkan Railway, has quickened the hopes of people in this underdeveloped region.
But the Sena has blotted its copybook, facing as it is allegations of extortion and threats. That is just what the Congress is harping on. The party, rejuvenated after Sharad Pawar and Vilasrao Deshmukh stepped in to resolve differences among local leaders, is looking better than it did in a long time.
So it won't be a cakewalk for either Anant Geete or Suresh Prabhu, the sitting MPs of Ratnagiri and Rajapur respectively. Prabhu was also the sole central minister chosen from the Sena in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's 13-day BJP government.
The Congress too has picked respected candidates, making it difficult for the Sena to make remarks of a personal nature.
The Congress has fielded Nishikant Joshi, former Chiplun MLA, who has a clean political record and who is editor of Sagar, a district-based daily. And avoiding hurting the feelings of groups headed by former MP Major Sudhir Sawant and the sole Congress MLA from Sawantwadi Pravin Bhosle, Pawar has fielded Machindra Kambli, a famous theatre personality from the region. Kambli, with his penchant for trenchant rhetoric, is already creating waves in Malvani.
But people aren't so worried about these issues so much as it is about the lack of employment and loss of livelihood. With textile mills in Bombay shutting down, putting Konkan's respected chakarmani out of their jobs, an element of desperation is discernible now. They want economic stability and jobs for their youth.
In deference to these demands, the candidates are also promising the people non-polluting and job-providing industries, work on the Konkan Railway, self-employment schemes, development of tourism, exemption of fishermen from coastal zone regulations and overall infrastructural development.
The Ratnagiri constituency, stretched over 250 kms, is dominated by the Kunbi community, which has a 60 per cent presence in the area from Mahad assembly segment of Raigad district to the Ratnagiri assembly segment, including Dapoli, Khed, Chiplun and Guhagar.
Though the Congress has won here seven times since 1952 to 1991, with the socialists beating them in 1977 and 1980, the Sena won it in the last election, snatching it from the jaws of both the Congress and the BJP. The BJP has always been a force here, its parent, the Jan Sangh winning the seat once in 1957.
Geete, a Sena councillor in Bombay who also belongs to the Kunbi community, has established himself since he first contested in 1991, polling 43 per cent votes against Govindrao Nikam, the then Congress MP. He increased his share to an unbeatable 57 per cent against Nikam in 1996.
"We lost because Muslim and RPI (Republican Party of India) votes split, while our House was also divided due to infighting," says Balasaheb Shetye, the Congress district general secretary. After Sonia Gandhi beefed up the Congress campaign and after the camps led by both Nikam and Joshi came together, the Congress camp has been very confident.
"The 200,000 Muslims and 100,000 RPI voters are with the Congress, besides the small group who were for the Samajwadi Party and the defunct Janata Dal," claims former JD president Abushet Dalwai, who is also behind Joshi.
Chandrakant Deshpande, the Sena district in-charge, however, expresses doubts about a Congress revival.
"Unlike in 1996, we have today captured the zilla parishads, panchayat samitis and 85 per cent of the village panchayats with our well-knit organisation," he says.
Geete's performance in the last 18 months, besides developmental work taken up by the two Sena ministers from the district, is their big plus point, though Sujit Ziman, leader of the Kunbi-dominated Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, has been causing them endless trouble.
Though a former Congress leader, Ziman is expected to draw away a sizeable chunk of votes. Congress leaders claim they have a secret pact with Ziman.
The Sena also has to contend with Surendra Thatte of the Swadesh Jagran Manch, who is making Enron the main issue, though it affects only five villages in the Guhagar assembly segment.
The main threat Geete faces is, surprisingly, from the RSS, which could tilt the balance if it gets sympathetic to Thatte's cause. Geete also faces a challenge from Kishor Sawant of the Akhil Bharatiya Sena in his home town, Khed.
But again, despite all local factors, it is the chakarmani in Bombay, himself swayed by Bombay's politics, who will decide who wins this seat.
It was a bastion of socialists like Nath Pai and Madhu Dandavate for nine terms in a row till Sudhir Sawant won it for the Congress in 1991and with the Malwanis opting for Suresh Prabhu in 1996.
The over 800,000-strong electorate of the Rajapur constituency is spread over six assembly segments, Rajapur and Sangameshwar from Ratnagiri district, and Devgad, Malwan, Sawantwadi and Vengurla from Sindhudurg district.
After being mauled by the Congress in 1991, and by the Sena in 1996, Dandavate has now made way for former Vengurla MLA Pushpsen Sawant, a hard-working young farmer with a good reputation. But with most of its cadres having gone over to the Sena, the Janata Dal is no more the force it once was.
Even though Marathas constitute 50 per cent of the population, Sawant may not be rescued by his community. The Maratha Mahasangh has already proffered support to the Congress, though some members are either members of, or support, the Shiv Sena.
Having won the last time by 66,000 votes, Prabhu today is confident of beating the Congress by over 100,000 votes.
"I have no rival left in the fray," the banker claims. And the people seem truly fascinated by the high-profile image of the former Union industries minister.
The Sena is still banking on the two assembly segments of Ratnagiri district, Rajapur and Sangameshwar, fully dominated by Kunbis. With the good work done by its state ministers, the party has also made inroads into the Congress-dominated assembly segments of Malwan, Devgad and Sawantwadi.
The Congress cadres have still not mobilised themselves in the two segments falling in Ratnagiri district, simplifying the task for the Sena. Machindra Kambli, hero of the Malwani theatre, seems to be still concentrating on the Devgad, Malwan, Sawantwadi and Vengurla segments of Sindhudurg district.
"We have cadres, but are not mobilised in an organised manner," admits Kishor Salgaokar, the local Youth Congress president. Though partymen are happy with the candidate, Kambli may have come in too late.
Kambli is confident that with his Malwani speeches, he stands a chance. Those who hear him also definitely respond positively to his rustic allure but it is yet uncertain if vibing with the masses could help him actually win.
Besides calling Pawar and Bhujbal over to address some well-attended rallies in the last two weeks, the Congress is also banking on around 100,000 votes from its ally, the Republican Party of India and 25,000 from the Muslims. But they are still heavily dependant on those who traditionally vote for them, and on the Bhandari community, to which Kambli belongs.
"My 25 per cent Bhandari community in the coastal belt will definitely vote for me," the actor says. Just as the theatre world is full of politics, he says, the political scenario is also a kind of drama. "It will end with an anti-climax for Kambli," quips a Shiv Sainik.
Struggling to maintain their hold over the socialist cadres are Dandavate, his wife Pramila, CPI-M leader Ahilya Ranganekar and a few other leaders from Bombay, who are touring the constituency. But the JD is an unlikely victor, other than in Sawant's former assembly constituency, Kudal.
The main threat the Sena faces in Rajapur is from Dr Nalini Bhuvad of the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi. Since she is a local and from the Kunbi community, she has gathered some good support around herself.
Another contestant is Kiran Thakur, leader of the Maharashtra Ekikaran Samiti and editor of Tarun Bharat. Though his preoccupation with the merger of border areas of Karnataka like Belgaum, Nipani etc into Maharashtra is not an issue of importance in the Konkan, he can still draw away a considerable number of votes from all parties.
Overall, its a shoo-in for Prabhu, since the locals are less worried about such arcane issues, and more about a person who can uplift their standard of living. They want him to become minister once again in a BJP-led government and then turn the whole region around.
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