Nearly a year ago, Maharashtra minister Nitin Raut, who hails from Nagpur, told me, “Nitin Gadkari ke yahan roz bakre kat rahe hain. Har roz ek biryani party di jaa rahi hai (A goat is sacrificed daily at Nitin Gadkari’s home. He throws biryani parties every day”).
It seems the former BJP president, who is contesting from Nagpur, believes that the way to people’s hearts is through their stomachs. With nearly 700,000 voters in Nagpur belonging to the minority community, Gadkari is taking no chances. Now he is not going to let all those biryani parties go in vain.
I have been on an extended tour of Vidarbha this past week and camping in Nagpur, but I am yet to come across a poster of Gadkari with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, who is dominating the party’s campaign materials across the country. But it is noteworthy that even as Tuesday was the last day in Nagpur to campaign, Modi, who has been to several constituencies in Vidarbha, has chosen to skip the famed Kasturchand Park here — which has always been considered a political barometer. In 1980, Mrs Indira Gandhi, on her comeback trail, got a poor response at Kasturchand Park and was completely written off by her rivals. Yet the Congress swept all seats (at that time 11) from the region. In 1999, Sonia Gandhi’s rally at Kasturchand Park saw a packed house and so much so that it frightened LK Advani into cancelling his subsequent rally lest it fall short by her numbers. Yet, the BJP came to power and the Congress had done rather poorly in its bastion in the last couple of elections.
However, the BJP has never won the Nagpur seat, despite it being the headquarters of the RSS except when the Congress rebel, Banwarilal Purohit, contested on the BJP’s ticket soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
One group in the BJP had hoped Modi’s rally would help swing this Congress bastion its way — Nagpur is the only constituency that had stood by the Congress even in 2004, when the party lost all other seats from the region. But Gadkari clearly does not want the sizeable Muslim and Dalit electorate (nearly 25%) to be put off by Modi’s presence and so the BJP’s PM candidate was kept away lest the sacrifice of all those goats over the past three years come to nought.
Should Gadkari be able to swing the seat this time round, it would create history as the RSS’ ideology has found no takers in this cosmopolitan city ever. However, if the Congress candidate, Vilas Muttemwar, is having a tough time dealing with dissenters, so is Gadkari. Over the last three days of campaigning, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan camped in Nagpur and one of his major accomplishments was to arm-twist the Dalit and Muslim leaders of the region who were unhappy with Muttemwar’s candidature. But I was startled to discover that among the delegations meeting the CM were top BJP leaders who spent less time asking for favours than advising him on how to ensure Gadkari’s defeat.
Nagpur has always been rather comical in this regard — when Purohit defected to the BJP from the Congress, he convinced the traditional Congress voters that the ‘hand’ had turned into the ‘Lotus’ while furling and cupping his open palm to make a flower. In 2009, Muttemwar gave up the fight two weeks before the polling date. He was fast asleep at his home on vote counting day when he was rudely shaken awake and told to rush to the counting centre where he was already leading by a substantial margin.
Gadkari, however, does not have Purohit’s advantage in morphing the Congress’ ‘hand’ into the ‘lotus’. Besides, he is also battling AAP’s candidate, Anjali Damania, a maverick, who has even some BJP voters unimpressed with Gadkari’s candidature in a quandary. Clearly Modi’s national advantage is not an asset in Nagpur. For all those slaughtered goats could then soon be demanding, well, their own pound of flesh!