In the last one month, the BJP has inducted three politicians from Marathwada into the party fold. All three are known baiters of former Chief Minister and Congress MP Ashok Chavan. The BJP’s ally, the Shiv Sena, too has inducted two former ruling alliance legislators from Western Maharashtra into its fold and is on the lookout for more.
These inductions by the saffron parties signify a calculated focus on Marathwada and western Maharashtra in the upcoming polls.
It’s these two regions where the ruling Congress-NCP managed to win the six seats they did in the Lok Sabha polls despite the Modi wave that turned the rest of the state saffron. The NCP managed 4 seats in its bastion of Western Maharashtra, the Congress’ tally of two was from Marathwada (Chavan’s turf Nanded and neighbouring Hingoli). In the rest of Maharashtra -– Vidarbha, North Maharashtra, Mumbai and the metropolitan region, and Konkan – the saffron combine had made a clean sweep.
In the Lok Sabha polls (six assembly constituencies make up one Lok Sabha constituency), the Congress-NCP trailed in 80% of the assembly segments across Maharashtra but for these two regions. In Marathwada, the Congress-NCP managed leads in 8 of the 30 Assembly seats and in 13 out of the 33 seats in Western Maharashtra that it now holds.
That’s the reason Marathwada and Western Maharashtra - which elect 112 legislators - are seen as the swing regions in these polls. These seats could hold the key to who forms the next government in the state.
“We are confident of doing well in Vidarbha, Konkan, North Maharashtra as well as the Mumbai belt. These assembly elections are within 5 months of the Lok Sabha polls and the Modi factor is still relevant in the state. It’s only Marathwada and Western Maharashtra where the ruling alliance may still have some sort of an edge,’’ said a senior BJP leader.
In Marathwada, the BJP is hoping to corner and tie down Chavan in the fight for his Assembly constituency, Bhokar, that is likely to be contested by his wife Ameeta. The three Chavan baiters inducted by BJP are former NCP union minister Suryakanta Patil (Hingoli), former MLA, Madhav Kinhalkar (who had filed the paid news case against Chavan) and former Congress MP and Chavan’s brother-in-law Bhaskarrao Khatgaokar. In the 2009 assembly polls, the Congress-NCP alliance had won 30 out of the 46 seats in Marathwada.
“`If we can keep Chavan busy in his own constituency, we can limit his impact in the rest of the district. In 2004, we had won 25 seats but in the 2009 polls, we lost badly here,” the BJP leader added.
The saffron combine has also been making serious efforts to breach the Western Maharashtra bastion of the ruling alliance, especially the NCP. That’s one of the reasons that the Sena-BJP tied up with the Swabhimani Shetkari party led by sugarcane farmers leader Raju Shetti to take on the sugar barons. In Sangli, the BJP has also poached discontented leaders of the ruling alliance. Sanjay Patil who used to be with the NCP is now BJP MP from Sangli. The BJP has given an open invitation to Congress MLA Vilas Patil, who may lose his candidature if chief minister Prithviraj Chavan decides to contest from South Karad.
“In Western Maharashtra, there are constituencies where the Sena-BJP hasn’t been able to find and field a strong candidate in, say, Indapur or Baramati for decades. So, they are actively looking for candidates here and welcoming rebels but that doesn’t mean they can sweep the polls,” said Ratnakar Mahajan, Congress spokesperson.
Sources in the ruling alliance admit that the NCP’s hold was slipping in the sugarcane belt. And, in the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress had failed to retain even strongholds like Sangli (seat not lost in three decades) and Solapur where former union minister Sushilkumar Shinde was trounced.
The NCP, on its part, plans on playing up the Maratha card – the government recently cleared 16% reservation for the community – in both Western Maharashtra as well as Marathwada.