While everyone says that in terms of actual contribution to Nanded or in moral authority, Ashok Chavan cannot compare with his father, in terms of contact with his voters, he beats S B Chavan hollow.
'Sab ko sambhaltey hain.'
Jyoti Punwani reports from Nanded.
Two days before polling day, April 18, an unheard of possibility was being discussed in Nanded: The strongman of this constituency, who withstood the 2014 Modi wave, may actually lose.
While this seems difficult to believe, what is not in doubt is that this election is proving tougher than imagined for former Maharashtra chief minister Ashok Chavan and the only politician who has mattered in Nanded since the death of his father S B Chavan.
Nanded has been a Chavan fiefdom for decades, a fact accepted by residents both with pride and resentment. This time, though, there is a serious attempt to challenge Ashok Chavan's hold. In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate's campaign was so low key it strengthened the belief that it was Chavan who had hand-picked him.
"Until now, Chavan felt he could manage the affairs of all parties in Nanded," says Pratap Rao Chikhalikar, the BJP candidate who now calls himself Pratap Patil Chikhalikar, in order to establish his Maratha identity. "But this time we are giving him a real fight."
Marathas constitute about 500,000 of the 1.7 million plus voters that make up this constituency.
Until now, Marathas have stood by fellow Maratha Chavan. This time, the reservation agreed upon by the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra is likely to sway their votes.
But as Chavan pointed out in an interview to Rediff.com, the reservation remains only a promise. It has been challenged in court, just as was the reservation granted by the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party government on the eve of the 2014 elections.
It is not just the Marathas who are a worrying factor for the man who controls almost every institution in Nanded.
The emergence of Dalit icon Prakash Ambedkar's Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi has made his 125,000 scheduled caste vote bank seem not so reliable any more.
The VBA candidate, Professor Yashpal Bhinge, is a Dhangar and the community, which was with the BJP, is angry at not being given scheduled tribe status as promised by the party.
Dhangar leaders were among the first to ally with Ambedkar. The conmunity accounts for 175,000 voters.
It's the Muslims then, who number between 200,000 and 300,000, who could turn out to be Chavan's most reliable voters. That he knows this was evident in his address to a meeting of 40-odd members of the Jamaat-e-Islami in their office on Monday morning.
Thanking each Jamaat member seated on the dais for their support, Chavan spoke of the threats to the Constitution presented by the Narendra Damodardas Modi government, but also referred to the mob lynchings, and the "restrictions on diet" imposed on the community.
Significantly, Congress President Rahul Gandhi referred to neither in his well attended public meeting that evening, an omission which was marked by several Muslim Congress members.
Chavan's tone at the Jamaat office was in sharp contrast to what representatives of the community heard a month back in Mumbai, where the Maharashtra Muslim Manch had organised a meeting for him.
There he compared their demands to domestic issues that could be resolved within 'the family'. 'What's at stake is the Constitution,' he had said. 'That's What we are fighting for. If you join our fight, it would be better.'
None of this arrogance was visible in Chavan's demeanour in the Jamaat office three days before his fate was to be decided.
Luckily for Chavan, the Muslims may not let him down. Nanded was the first to give the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen a chance by electing 11 corporators in 2012. The city's Muslims were also the first to get disillusioned, and in 2017 they elected 73 Congress corporators out of 81.
Today, ask Muslims in Nanded about AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi and their dismissive expression gives them away. Luckily for Chavan, despite the polarised times, Muslim support to him won't drive away his Hindu voters.
While everyone says that in terms of actual contribution to Nanded or in moral authority, Ashok Chavan cannot compare with his father, in terms of contact with his voters, he beats his father hollow.
"Sab ko sambhaltey hain (He takes care of everyone)," says one political worker. Nanded is a Sikh pilgrimage centre and the city's 25,000 odd Sikhs are also with Chavan. In fact, his support is spread across caste and religion.
In this, his grip over the financial and political institutions of the constituency comes in handy. From hotel owners to dhaba owners to petrol pump owners, everyone says they are flourishing on Chavan's patronage.
But says Farooq Ahmed, political activist, who was with the AAP in 2014 and is now backing Ambedkar, this time Chavan's "dhantantra" won't work. Today, Dalits are themselves funding their candidate, he points out.
"Jo paise lekar vote detey the, aaj paise dekar vote karnewaley hain (Those who used to take money to vote are now giving money to fund their own candidate.). They don't care any more for Chavan's money or political power."
Ironically, it was Chavan who was negotiating with Ambedkar to ally with the Congress. "We were willing to give him 6 to 8 seats. We didn't know the equation was already set. The BJP had already won him over," Chavan tells Rediff.com.
The BJP's top leadership has campaigned in Nanded, from Modi to Nitin Gadkari to Fadnavis. "Nanded is obviously a target for them," says Chavan with some pride.
However, in this hectic campaign, what is missing is a basic issue: The current drought.
A visit to the villages around Nanded reveals the harsh reality of life there. "From the time we get up till the time we sleep, all that we can think of is where to get our daily supply of water," says Raju Rathod.
Women filling pitchers from the tanker which comes every alternate day say the shortage of water began after Dussehra last year, but the Fadnavis government started sending tankers just last week.
"We know this is for the elections," they say. Local MLAs -- Hemant Patil of the Shiv Sena and Prakash Patil, who is also the BJP's Lok sabha candidate -- have done nothing, the women say.
As if to prove them right, two young men hanging around warned the reporters present that if the villagers's complaints got space in the media, the tankers would be stopped.