Last month, when Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said he would be only too happy to see Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief and former political mentor Sharad Pawar as the prime minister, he got panned for his foot-in-the-mouth remark.
But in Maharashtra, political observers knew Shinde’s comment was not just symptomatic of his casual frankness. It reflected a certain jitteriness about his prospects in Lok Sabha polls from home turf Solapur.
The Union home minister, a Dalit leader, needs all the help he can get from the NCP and Pawar to shore up Maratha votes in his constituency. The NCP controls two assembly constituencies within Solapur. It also retains clout over its network of sugar cooperatives and banks.
In a tough election year, Shinde’s predicament is shared by stalwarts across party lines, pointing to a very real unpredictability in the state’s multi-corner contest. And with the assembly polls slated to be held in October, senior leaders have been asked by party chief Sharad Pawar to concentrate on Lok Sabha. One of them is senior NCP leader and public works minister Chhagan Bhujbal.
Testing times are ahead for BJP leaders and rivals Gopinath Munde and Nitin Gadkari too.The straight fight between Congress-NCP alliance and the saffron combine has been squared out with players like the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and the Aam Admi Party (AAP). And the social networking sites and increased awareness has queered the pitch further.
The traditional voter loyalty to a party or family is on its way out and senior political leaders are increasingly being forced to fall back on intra-party relations.
For instance, in central Maharashtra’s Beed, Gopinath Munde — BJP’s deputy leader in Lok Sabha — is fighting a rebellion within the family to protect his home turf. After Munde chose daughter Pankaja as his political heir, nephew Dhananjay Munde shifted loyalty to the NCP.
Over the last decade, the NCP has slowly eroded Munde’s base, wresting four of the five assembly constituencies.
Munde, an OBC leader, will also sorely miss his friend from the Congress, late chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, the most prominent Maratha leader of the state. In 2009, Deshmukh had ensured that Marathas supported Munde in the elections.
"Munde was considering fielding Pankaja for the Lok Sabha this time, as there is uncertainty over this seat. Even the Beed zilla parishad is with the NCP. If he doesn’t win, his political career could be in jeopardy," admitted a senior BJP leader.
Munde’s rival Gadkari, former BJP president and five-time legislator, is banking on goodwill in his home turf. Backing from the RSS and good relations across rival political parties — the NCP, the MNS and the Sena — can help him beat seven-time Congress MP Vilas Muttemwar.
Compared to the Congress candidate, Gadkari is an electoral novice. Till date, he has contested only one assembly election, which he lost.
But he has been smart enough to build for himself a support base among the Dalits and Muslims in the constituency, who represent more than 20% of the votebank. He has never taken a hardline Hindu stand and enjoys goodwill due to his successful stint as the public works minister during the Sena-BJP rule. Gadkari would also try and get help from dissidents in Nagpur Congress, who do not want a comeback for Muttemwar.
But despite all this, the polls will not be a cakewalk for Gadkari, as the Nagpur constituency has been loyal to the Congress and Muttemwar.
For the ruling NCP, it is time to retain their clout in Centre.
“It is a tough election year and that’s one reason we asked our seniormost state leaders to move to Lok Sabha. Three of our state ministers will contest this year,” admitted NCP state president Bhaskar Jadhav.
Bhujbal, the party’s sole mass leader of the other backward castes (OBCs), is hoping to vault to Lok Sabha from Nashik. His cabinet colleague Jaydutt Kshirsagar has been asked to contest against Munde in Beed.
But Bhujbal’s route to Parliament is not going to be easy even though Nashik is regarded as a pocket borough of the family. The sitting MP of the constituency is his nephew Sameer, while Bhujbal and his son Pankaj represent two of the five assembly constituencies within Nashik.
Bhujbal will face detractors within the alliance and outside as caste equations come to play.
The PWD minister belongs to Mali (OBC) community and Marathas, the other dominant community in the constituency, will regroup against him. He also is up against Raj Thackeray’s MNS, which has made huge inroads in the region besides several allegations of corruption.
What will help this stalwart retain his home turf is a little help from friends like Sena chief Uddhav — a fight between Sena and MNS can leave him enough room to emerge victorious.