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September 3, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Vidarbha

Pawar play

Pankaj Upadhyay in Nagpur

Vidarbha, a fellow journalist once told me, is the easiest to crack in Maharashtra as far as elections are concerned. Either the region is swept by one or the other wave, or the electorate is divided so sharply on caste lines that the results are as good as out as soon as parties declare their candidates.

Conventional wisdom could come a cropper this time round -- Vidharba, which is scheduled to vote on Sunday, September 5, is proving to be not so easy to read.

For one, there is no perceptible wave, for or against. Sonia's foreign origins, India's victory in Kargil, Vajpayee's charisma -- none of these factors have been able to enthuse voters to any extent you could notice. And splits in the Congress and the Republican Party of India, and rebellion in all almost parties, have only made matters even more complicated.

As one travels through the region talking to people, analysts and political leaders, one thing becomes clear: the Congress is still quite strong in the region, and the rebellion by Sharad Pawar and the consequent birth of the Nationalist Congress Party may not have the kind of impact here that it is expected to have in the sugar-belt districts of Karad, Kolhapur, Sangli and Satara.

But that refers to NCP as a party. What Pawar can achieve through his manipulative techniques and his personal relationships with leaders of various political parties is a different matter altogether.

There is already talk of a tacit understanding between the Bharatiya Janata Party and Sharad Pawar in several Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies in Vidarbha. Through this secret pact, it is said, Pawar wants to achieve two things. First, make sure that as many Congress candidates as possible are defeated. Second, weaken the Shiv Sena and win over youths to his party.

The BJP, for its part, would be only too happy to weaken the Shiv Sena hold in the state even as its strength goes up in Parliament.

It is increasingly becoming clear that Pawar would not mind losing Bhandara and even Chimur if the BJP ensures that his trusted aide Datta Meghe is elected from Wardha. It is for this reason that NCP strongman Prafulla Patel is contesting from Chimur and not from Bhandara, his stronghold.

However, it would be naive to assume that Patel, a shrewd politician in his own right, moved to a relatively new constituency (he contested from Chimur in 1989 and lost) only to help the BJP. The main reason why he left Bhandara was the fear of defeat.

In the previous election, Patel took Bhandara by a thin margin despite the fact that the Congress and its ally, the RPI, were both united at the time. This time round, with the Congress split in two and the RPI in three, and with just one faction of the RPI aligning with the NCP, it would have been impossible for Patel to beat Chumilal Thakur of the BJP from Bhandara. Thakur belongs to the Powar community, which constitutes almost 52 per cent of the electorate in Bhandara.

But there is a task that has been assigned to Patel in Chimur -- namely, to ensure the fall of Congress-RPI candidate Professor Jogendra Kawade. And given his money and influence, Patel seems on course to achieve this objective. It is common knowledge here that Patel had financed Kawade's campaign last time. Despite the unity in the Congress and RPI at that time, Kawade barely scraped through by a 2,200-vote margin. This time round, given with Patel's hold over the electorate in some pockets of Chimur (two assembly constituencies under the Chimur Lok Sabha segment come under Bhandara district), it should not be difficult for him to ensure Kawade's defeat.

In this scenario, it is the BJP's Nimadevrao Divate who may emerge winner by default, though there is the outside possibility that Patel may not only defeat Kawade, but actually go on to win the seat himself.

Interestingly, the anti-incumbency factor in the state seems to be working only against the Shiv Sena and not against the BJP, though the latter is also part of the government. And this is partly because of the BJP's soaring popularity at the national level after Kargil.

Thus, in triangular fights involving the Congress and the NCP, the advantage will go to the BJP. In constituencies where the Shiv Sena is the third party, the advantage will be minimal.

This is the first time since 1977 that simultaneous polls are being held in Maharashtra, and data relating to the impact of simultaneous elections on voter behaviour is a bit thin on the ground. In Vidharba, it appears that local issues, caste configurations and political arrangements between parties will decide the winners in the 11 Lok Sabha and 66 assembly constituencies (six assembly seats under each Lok Sabha segment). A quick overview follows:

Buldhana: This Lok Sabha constituency has the dubious distinction of not electing the same candidate for two consecutive terms. Former Union minister Mukul Wasnik, who is also the sitting Congress MP, is trying to buck the trend, and is locked in a triangular contest with the Shiv-Sena BJP's Anandrao Adsul and the NCP's Sahebrao Sardar. The 'outsider' factor could play a role -- while Wasnik is from Nagpur, Adsul, who won the 1996 election, is from Bombay.

One factor working in Wasnik's favour is the rebellion in both the BJP and the NCP, while the Congress is more or less united.

Akola: This Lok Sabha constituency is dominated by Dalits, which explains why Prakash Ambedkar contested this seat four times despite losing thrice. A glance at the electoral history of this constituency shows that in a triangular contest between the RPI, Congress and the BJP, Ambedkar has always lost. Last time round, he won because the Congress was united at the time and had a poll pact with the RPI, also united.

This time the situation is radically different with both parties divided, further complicated by a triangular fight. Pandurang Phundkar, who has defeated Ambedkar thrice, is once again the BJP candidate. And if history and ground realities are reliable yardsticks, the BJP will be favoured to take this seat.

Chandrapur: This is one Lok Sabha constituency in Vidarbha where the NCP has not been able to make many inroads. Located on the border of Andhra Pradesh, this Naxalite-infested constituency is a traditional Congress stronghold, and that party's candidate, Naresh Pugalia, is the hot favourite to win. He faces a weak opponent in Shobhatai Potdukhe of the NCP.

Though Potdukhe belongs to an influential family, she is hardly perceived as a public figure. And the fact that the NCP has weak candidates in the six assembly segments in the region is not helping her any, either.

Yavatmal: Here, the main contest is between Rajabahu Thakre of the NCP and Uttamrao Patil of the Congress. Thakre is expected to give Patil a run for his money. The Patil community has a major presence here, and Uttamrao has won this seat five times in the past.

Local Congress chiefs are confident that the split in votes consequent on the Pawar rebellion will not affect Patil's prospects -- a confidence derived from the fact that he won the seat in 1989 when the entire Congress leadership in the district was against him. At the time, the leadership supported Congress rebel Suresh Lonkar, and yet Patil pulled through to a win, albeit by a slim majority.

Chimur: This one is a tactical battle for the NCP, the goal apparently being to defeat the Congress-RPI candidate, Jogendra Kawade. But then, NCP candidate Prafulla Patel could well exceed his brief, and actually take the seat.

Bhandara: An interesting character of Bhandara is its aversion for intellectuals. Dr B R Ambedkar, the father of the Constitution, lost here in the mid-term poll of 1957. This was just after he had left the Congress and formed the RPI. He was defeated by a small-time politician, Bhaurao Borkar.

Another example: Borkar himself, who was the chairman of the Planning Commission when he contested from Bhandara in the 1970s, lost to a panchayat-level politician by a big margin.

If this bit of Bhandara's history is anything to go by, Congress candidate Dr Shrikant Jichkar, author of several books and with a string of degrees longer than most human arms, does not stand a chance. There are other reasons, too, why Dr Jichkar's victory is unlikely -- he is seen as an outsider, he has very little contact with the masses, and he does not command any following in the local party hierarchy.

On the other hand, his opponent, Chunnilal Thakur of the BJP, is a well known local politico. He belongs to the Powar community, which constitutes 52 per cent of the population. With NCP strongman Prafulla Patel moving to Chimur, Thakur is cruising towards a comfortable victory.

Amaravati: R S Gavai, the RPI-Congress candidate, is the front-runner here. There are, however, reports of his having entered into a pact with old friend Pawar. Gavai played a vital role in the distribution of Congress seats for the six assembly segments that constitute the Amravati Lok Sabha segment. One seat has gone to the RPI; and of the five that went to the Congress, three are Gavai nominees. And all four candidates who owe allegiance to Gawai are actively campaigning for his victory.

And this outcome suits Pawar just fine. For the record, the Shiv Sena has Anant Gudhe contesting, while the NCP makes it a three-cornered affair through Dr Mohan Kale.

Washim: Another of those triangular contests, between former state minister Anantrao Deshmukh of the Congress, Bhavna Gawli of the Shiv Sena and former state minister Professor Javed Khan of the NCP.

Bhawna Gawli, who is in her mid-20s, is the daughter of Pundalikrao Gawli, who defeated former chief minister Sudhakar Naik in Pusad in 1996. Professor Khan is banking on the Muslim votes and those of the Banjara community to which Sudhakar Naik, now an NCP candidate from Pusad, belongs.

Pusad is one assembly constituency that is being closely watched, given Naik's candidature on the NCP ticket. Naik is locked in a seemingly close race, with Vijay Chavan (Congress) and Rajan Mukhre (Sena) making up the other angles of the triangle.

It is expected to be a close run thing, because in the last election Naik's brother Manohar won by just 2,000 votes against Mukhre.

Wardha: NCP candidate Datta Meghe is on cruise control here. This constituency is dominated by Kunbi Marathas -- and Meghe, as a Kunbi has a readymade support base. Wardha, as mentioned earlier, is one of the constituencies where Sharad Pawar has a tacit pact with the BJP. Though Meghe's opponent is Suresh Waghmare of the Shiv Sena, the BJP workers are noticeably staying away from the campaign. The third contender is Prabha Rao, sitting MLA and former minister. However, her campaign seems to lack lustre.

Ramtek: Here, the outcome is clear -- the Congress has been wiped out by the NCP. In the last elections only two Congress candidates had won the assembly elections here -- Dr Bhavan Parate Umred and Harshwardhan Deshmukh (Morshi). In the other four constituencies, rebel candidates (read Pawar supporters) coasted through to victory.

Those four rebels have jumped on the Pawar bandwagon. Interestingly, so too have the two sitting Congress MLAs, making it a clean sweep in the region.

The Congress candidate, local press baron Banwarilal Purohit, thus cuts a pretty lonely figure. After Congress president Sonia Gandhi's whistlestop campaign in the region, Purohit's chances appear to have brightened a touch, but at best this is expected to be a close contest.

Nagpur: Maharashtra's winter capital has been a traditional Congress stronghold. In the last election, Vilas Muttemwar of the Congress beat his nearest rival by a margin of over 100,000 votes -- this, of course, when the Congress and its electoral ally, the RPI, were united. This time round, Muttemwar, though running the inside track, could have a tough time because the RPI-NCP candidate Ashok Godghate seems to be cutting a swathe through the former's vote bank.

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