Two years after his demise, former chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh’s presence still looms large in his hometown Latur, in Marathwada. His name evokes thunderous applause at rallies, his photos adorn many a local commercial establishment and a majority considers his death Latur’s great tragedy.
The big question ahead of the assembly polls in Latur is whether Vilasrao’s legacy can win the poll battle for his eldest son and former Congress minister Amit Deshmukh.
In the Lok Sabha polls, the Congress faced a humiliating defeat in its bastion, Latur, after the BJP candidate defeated the Congress with a margin of around two lakh votes. Four months on, the battle will hit closer home with Amit defending his home turf, Latur city.
He has to battle anti-incumbency and the Modi factor, still at the top of the electorate’s mind, besides his own reputation as someone who is ‘inaccessible’, ‘not a people’s person’; in short unable to fit in his father’s large shoes.
Amit bhaiya, as he is better known in the constituency, faces the BJP’s Shailesh Lahotti, a former Congressman, who switched to the party three months ago as the main contender in this multi-corner contest.
“We are hoping to win with a comfortable margin. I don’t see Lahotti as a tough contender. He is a former Congressman, who saw an opportunity and shifted allegiance. We are going to people with what we have done and what I plan to do in Latur and for the state,’’ Amit told HT after a rally in the city, largely made up of youngsters. He termed the Modi factor as irrelevant and dismissed allegations of being inaccessible as ‘gossip’ spread by opponents.
Amit has launched a high-profile campaign showcasing his plan for Latur, releasing a 100-point Laturnama – including making it a university town like Oxford and the next Mumbai – through the social media and party rallies.
But with opponents and many citizens asking for an audit of basic services to the city such as water supply (comes once in seven days), garbage collection, his Laturnama may find no takers.
What works is his last name.
Amit bhaiyya, also ‘chota raja’ to some, has a fan following among youngsters in the city, as was evident at the rally. They would love to see him loosen up a bit, wear denims instead of starched white kurta-pyjama and perhaps shake a leg like his brother, actor Riteish Deshmukh, to a popular party ditty here — ‘Ala re ala, Deshmukh ala’. “At the end of the day, he is Vilasrao’s son. He will be able to fulfil his father’s dreams for Latur. Also, he is a Maratha, the community will support him against Lahotti.” said Suhas, a 26-year-old working as a receptionist at a hotel and a supporter.
BJP is using its campaign to showcase Amit as an ‘outsider’, who comes to Latur only to ask for votes. “I have been working in Latur for the past 30 years and I know their problems. He talks big, but has failed to get even water to the city. He appears only to ask for votes before elections,’’ said Lahotti. Congress sources admit the contest is no cake walk, but with the entire Deshmukh family entering the campaign ring, Latur city, they say is under the belt.
“The Modi wave is still strong and so is anti-incumbency against the Congress-NCP. Amit is on the brink of losing his seat and the other seven seats in Latur district will be swept by BJP,’’ said Sambhaji Patil, BJP’s candidate from neighbouring Nilanga. Sambhaji had overseen the LS polls for the BJP in Latur.