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|February 21, 1998|
Gadkari stakes ministerial position on result
Maharashtra Public Works Minister Nitin Gadkari is not a Lok Sabha candidate, but has staked his ministerial position on the election results in the Nagpur constituency.
"I will resign from the ministry if Bharatiya Janata Party nominee Ramesh Mantri is defeated," he stated publicly, accepting former BJP MP Banwarilal Purohit's challenge.
Gadkari, the guardian minister for Nagpur, is considered the architect of the BJP's first- ever victory in the district's corporation elections a year ago.
Purohit was denied renomination by the BJP following opposition from general secretary Pramod Mahajan, Deputy Chief Minister Gopinath Munde and Gadkari for levelling corruption charges against them. He has since resigned from the BJP and re-joined the Congress.
''People vote for the party; the status of its candidate hardly counts,'' said Gadkari, defending the BJP decision to replace Purohit with the low-profile Mantri.
The Congress, which toyed with the idea of backing Purohit against the BJP, eventually put up former Union minister of state for rural employment Vilas Muttemwar. It is now a straight fight between the Congress and the BJP, though there are six other candidates in the field.
Muttemwar was elected thrice to the Lok Sabha from Chimur, but lost to BJP nominee Namdeo Diwate in 1996 by over 120,000 votes. It was only then that he vigorously lobbied for the Nagpur seat.
Initially, the BJP was confident of retaining the seat, but the massive turn-out at Sonia Gandhi's election rally here has shaken the party. By all accounts, her February 15 rally at Kasturchand Park was bigger than the one addressed by BJP prime ministerial candidate Atal Bihari Vajpayee at the same venue two days earlier.
Both contenders and their supporters are leaving no chances to garner public support.
The Congress is shrewdly utilising Purohit to attack the BJP. In a speech preceding Sonia Gandhi's arrival at Kasturchand Park, he was allowed to ridicule the BJP and expose its "double standards". He exploited the occasion to the hilt by narrating how he had been unfairly treated by BJP leaders, including Vajpayee, for exposing the "corrupt deals" of the Mahajan-Munde-Gadkari triumvirate.
Purohit, who was elected to the Lok Sabha twice on the Congress ticket, had resigned from the party and joined the BJP in 1991, supporting its stand on the Babri Masjid issue. In 1996, the BJP fielded him as its candidate and he returned to the Lok Sabha with a big margin. On being denied the ticket, he has vowed to defeat its nominees in Nagpur and elsewhere and has been campaigning in that direction.
The Janata Dal candidate, corporator Haji Abdul Quereshi, claims that his fight is with the BJP and the Congress will be relegated to the third position. Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral addressed a rally in his support yesterday.
Not to be left behind, Bahujan Samaj Party president Kanshi Ram addressed a rally to mobilise support for his party's nominee, Siddharth Patil.
The Rashtriya Janata Dal, led by former Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, has fielded Pradip Nimje. But no national level RJD leader came to campaign for him.
The Congress is heavily banking on its alliance with the Republican Party and the Samajwadi Party in the state. The party leadership has also been able to mobilise all its factional leaders behind Muttemwar, overcoming initial reservations over his shifting to Nagpur.
But the Congress still has a rocky path ahead. Its monopoly over Vidarbha, a Congress stronghold, was shattered in 1996 when the party lost nine of the 11 Lok Sabha seats to the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. It was a repeat performance of the 1995 assembly poll. But Maharashtra Pradesh Congress president Ranjit Deshmukh says it will be reverse fortunes for the alliance this time.
This Lok Sabha constituency has six assembly segments -- Kamptee, Nagpur Central, Nagpur East, Nagpur North, Nagpur South and Nagpur West. While the Congress won two assembly seats in 1995, the BJP bagged three and one went to the rebel Congress MLA from Kamptee, Deorao Radke. He was one of the 41 Independent MLAs supporting the SS-BJP alliance, but he has come out in support of Muttemwar this time.
The constituency has a sizeable number of Dalit votes. Republican party candidate Umakant Ramteke had secured 163,000 votes in 1996 and contributed, in some measure, to the defeat of Congress nominee Kunda Vijaykar. This time, the RPI is backing the Congress as part of the electoral alliance.
The BJP is relying on its cadre, especially drawn from the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, to reach out to the voters. The party had a head start in the election campaign as the Congress could not decide on its candidate even three days after the filing of the nominations began.
The BJP, which had supported the demand for a separate state of Vidarbha and incorporated it in its election manifesto, has maintained a discreet silence following stiff opposition from Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. In fact, statehood for the region, as recommended by the States Reorganisation Commission in 1956, is no longer an election issue now and has no public support. This is because those who had championed it had either been won over by the Congress or preferred to forget it after the elections.
The stormy petrel of Vidarbha politics Jambuvantrao Dhote, had won the 1971 Lok Sabha poll by making separate statehood for the region his election plank. He had even managed to get 16 members of his Forward Bloc party elected to the state assembly in 1978 on the same issue, but all of them subsequently joined the Congress.
The next few days will decide whether the Congress will regain its lost glory in Nagpur and elsewhere in the region.
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