It is neck and neck in the first phase of election in Maharashtra

The advantage the BJP held in the Vidarbha region seems to be waning. Issues of inflation and caste conflicts only add to the party’s troubles. 

Published : Apr 09, 2024 17:27 IST - 7 MINS READ

A hoarding of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari is on a tanga (horse cart) during an election campaign for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections 2024, in Nagpur.

A hoarding of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari is on a tanga (horse cart) during an election campaign for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections 2024, in Nagpur. | Photo Credit: ANI

As campaigning for the Nagpur Lok Sabha constituency gains momentum, a six-month-old video of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, who represents the constituency, has resurfaced. In it he is heard saying that he will not hold a single rally and that his work will speak for itself. Gadkari’s confidence apparently stemmed from his handsome victories in the previous parliamentary elections, in 2014 and 2019. However, as the April 19 elections approach, Gadkari is seen actively campaigning in every nook and cranny of the constituency, which is considered one of the safest seats for the BJP in Maharashtra, indicating the shape of things to come.

Nagpur is among the five constituencies in the East Vidarbha region that will go to polls in the first phase of elections on April 19; the others are Chandrapur, Ramtek, Bhandara-Gondia, and Gadchiroli Chimur. Gadkari here faces Vikas Thakre, Nagpur West MLA and president of the District Congress Committee. Initially, when Thakre’s candidature was announced, many believed it would be a walkover for Gadkari. However, the situation changed with all the three camps of Nagpur Congress leaders, Vilas Muttemwar, Nitin Raut, and Satish Chaturvedi, joining hands to give Thakre the ticket. That became a game-changer, despite all of them having excellent personal relations with Gadkari.

Yet another reason for Thakre’s campaign picking up is the support from the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) led by Prakash Ambedkar. The VBA is not in alliance with the INDIA bloc, of which the Congress is a constituent, but he has declared his support for the Congress in seven seats, Nagpur being one of them. Despite the fact that the VBA, even at its peak, had shown to have little impact on the Nagpur seat, Gadkari got his act together. He must have been alerted by the fact that the VBA will not play any role in splitting the anti-BJP votes, which would have acted in his favour.

The opposition’s consistent campaign on unemployment too has set off alarm bells in the BJP camp. Pritika Karale, who is a graduate in Chemistry, is unemployed. So is her sister, Ritvika Karale, who has done her Master’s in microbiology. “There are no jobs in Nagpur,” said Pritika. “Many of our batchmates have shifted to Pune, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad for jobs. We are trying to find jobs in Pune or Hyderabad. Students who pass out from Nagpur know that there is no future here.”

In Ramtek, reserved for the Scheduled Caste category, Congress’ initial candidate Rashmi Barve was disqualified from contesting because her caste validity certificate was rejected. Her husband, Shamsundar Barve, has now stepped into the contest. He faces Raju Parwe, former Congress MLA of Umred, who quit the party to join Chief Minister Eknath Shinde’s Shiv Sena. However, the real battle is between Congress leader Sunil Kedar and BJP State chief Chandrashekhar Bawankule. The Savner and Kamti Assembly constituencies, represented by Kedar and Bavankule respectively, fall in Ramtek, making it a matter of prestige for both leaders.

Also Read | Can the two Aghadis join hands in Maharashtra?

Significantly, both camps are racked by internal troubles. Within the Congress, there is rebellion from Kishor Gajbhiye, its 2019 Lok Sabha candidate. He is seeking the support of the VBA. Parwe faces troubles from Krupal Tumane, the sitting MP of Ramtek, who was not given the ticket this time. Tumane’s supporters, mainly from his Scheduled Caste Hindu-Khatik community, have fielded rebel candidates. Shinde tried to placate Tumane’s supporters by announcing that he would give a more prestigious post to Tumane in the coming days.

Another battle to be watched for in the first phase of elections is in Chandrapur. This is the only seat the Congress won in 2019 in Maharashtra. Suresh alias Balu Dhanorkar, who won from here, died in 2023. His wife and MLA from Warora, Pratibha Dhanorkar, is contesting from Chandrapur this time. She is pitted against the BJP’s Sudhir Mungantiwar, the Cabinet Minister for Forests, Cultural Affairs and Fisheries in the State, making Chandrapur a high-voltage contest in Maharashtra.

In Chandrapur, the VBA has fielded Rajesh Bele as its candidate. Bele comes from the Teli community, historically known for its support for the BJP; Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, hails from this community. But Bele is likely to divide the Teli votes between him and Mungantiwar, hurting the BJP’s prospects here. But Mungantiwar seemed unfazed. “The people of the Teli community know that the BJP is working for them. Prime Minister Modi is from the Teli community. So, why will they waste their vote on one small political activist when their man is going to be the Prime Minister for the third time,” he said.

Inflation, unemployment, and caste concerns

In the 2019 elections, the BJP won three seats and the Shiv Sena one of the five seats in East Vidarbha. This time, the Congress seems to be putting up a strong fight in every seat. This is mainly because of concerns over inflation and unemployment on the one hand and caste conflicts on the other.

The Shinde government’s decision to give Kunbi Marathas of the State the OBC caste certificate has miffed the dominant OBC community in Vidarbha. They have consistently voted for the BJP in all the elections since 2014. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance won all 10 seats in Vidarbha.

Congress candidate Pratibha Dhanorkar with party leaders during filing her nomination from Chandrapur constituency on March 27, 2024.

Congress candidate Pratibha Dhanorkar with party leaders during filing her nomination from Chandrapur constituency on March 27, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

In the Assembly elections that year, the BJP contested independently and won 42 seats out of 63 from the region. In 2019, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance lost only one seat in Vidarbha, showing a clear preference for the BJP in the region. But there has been a notable shift in the region following the Shinde government’s decision to give the Kunbis OBC certificate. Initiating damage-control measures, BJP leaders are reaching out to all the sub-castes of the Kunbi community.

Another big trouble for the BJP is inflation. Everywhere, from Nagpur’s city area to Chandrapur’s semi-urban township and Ramtek’s backward tehsils such as Umred and Savner, inflation is the topic of every political debate. In Chandrapur’s Rajura village, a group of women gathered in front of a ration shop voiced their concerns about price rises even while acknowledging the BJP’s campaign regarding 80 crore people getting free ration. “All other things are costlier than in the past. You are giving us free ration. But from soap to milk and sugar to gas cylinder, everything is costlier. Electricity bills are also high,” said Gaydevi Johe, who is in her late 50s. Ramabai Kirote, sitting next to her, complained about the quality of grains at the ration shop. “Tell your Modiji to give us quality rice and wheat. Many times, we get rotten rice. The government must check its quality before sending it to the ration shop,” she said.

The BJP’s strategy relies on two things: The face of PM Modi and the narrative of hyper-nationalism wrapped in majoritarianism. In every speech, they make it a point to emphasise that every vote is for Modi. For instance, in Ramtek, Parwe appealed to people to vote for him because that would help Modi build the nation. “Modiji is making efforts to make India Vishwaguru. He works 18 hours a day. If you want to make him stronger, then vote for me,” he said in a rally in Hingna.

But the appeal for Modi’s persona seems to have a limited response now. Only hardcore BJP voters are responding positively to such messaging. “Brand Modi” is being challenged by a large section of the population compared with 2019.

Also Read | Modi’s Mission Maharashtra

Krishna Timande, a cake shop owner who migrated from Telangana to Chandrapur, was listening to Mungantiwar’s speech in which he highlighted how Modi had raised India’s international prestige. “Mungantiwar should not emphasise these things now because he is well regarded. People know how Modi’s propaganda machinery works. The world is laughing at us for the fake news that is run to influence the emotions of Indians,” he said.

However, the BJP may have better tricks up its sleeve. The first phase of elections on April 19 will fall right after the Ram Navami on April 17. Almost everyone is sure that given the BJP’s efforts to take credit for the building of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the party and the RSS will plan something flashy that could sway the minds of voters. In a rally at Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, Modi raised the issue of the Ram temple. But for now, the battle in the first phase of the Maharashtra elections seems intense and surprisingly neck and neck.

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