High stakes, low blows

THE WEEK analyses the factors that could affect the outcome of Maharashtra polls

PTI9_25_2019_000071B No laughing matter: Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. The Sena and the BJP’s last-minute seat-sharing agreement has made rebels out of many ticket aspirants | PTI

On October 13, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addressed rallies at Ausa, Chandivali and Dharavi, launching a scathing attack on the BJP governments in Maharashtra and at the Centre. He blamed the BJP for the slowing economy, the rising unemployment and the unending farmer suicides.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was in Maharashtra that day, dared the opposition to reverse the decisions taken by his government—especially the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the abolition of triple talaq. The same day, Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar declared that he would not rest till he ousted the BJP and Shiv Sena from power.

The rallies of Rahul, Modi and Pawar have turned up the political heat, as the state prepares to go to the polls on October 21. With politics becoming aspirational, parties are struggling to contain rebellions. The worst hit are the ruling BJP and the Shiv Sena, whose last-minute seat-sharing agreement dashed the hopes of ticket aspirants who were counting on the parties to go it alone in the polls, like they had in 2014.

The BJP-Sena candidates are facing strong rebels in at least 40 seats, making the contests difficult to win. A case in point is Kagal in Kolhapur district, where four-term legislator Hasan Mushriff of the NCP is pitted against Sanjay Ghatge of the Sena and Samarjit Ghatge, a sugar baron and BJP rebel. The BJP had been nurturing Samarjit as its candidate in Kagal for two years. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis attended functions organised by him and he was made chairman of the Pune board of the Maharashtra Housing and Development Authority. Apparently, he had been told that he would be the candidate even if the BJP and the Sena had a seat-sharing agreement.

Kagal has always been a Sena constituency, so party chief Uddhav Thackeray named former MLA Sanjay Ghatge as the candidate. The BJP tried and failed to take Kagal from the Sena, which led to Samarjit revolting.

A straight fight would have helped the Sena defeat the NCP, as Mushriff is facing strong anti-incumbency. Samarjit’s presence, which could help Mushriff, makes Kagal an interesting fight in southern Maharashtra.

Sangola in Solapur district is also being keenly watched. The reason: Peasants and Workers Party of India leader Ganpatrao Deshmukh, who has represented the constituency for 11 terms, has called it a day and asked his party to find a suitable candidate. Simple and down to earth, Deshmukh has won all but one election since 1962.

After Deshmukh withdrew, the PWP decided to field industrialist Bhusaheb Rupnar. As Rupnar prepared for the fight, the PWP leadership backtracked and gave the ticket to Ganpatrao’s grandson Aniruddh Deshmukh. This angered Rupnar, who joined the Shiv Sena. He and his followers, many of whom belong to the sizeable Dhangar community, are now campaigning for the Sena’s Shahaji Kadam.

Another fascinating contest is in Kankavli in Sindhudurg district, where former chief minister Narayan Rane’s son, legislator and former Congress leader Nitesh Rane is contesting on a BJP ticket. The rivalry between the Ranes and the Shiv Sena is legendary. The Sena has fielded Satish Sawant, chairman of Sindhudurg District Cooperative Bank and a one-time close aide of Ranes. Angered by the Sena’s move, the BJP is openly supporting two rebels against the Sena’s official candidates in neighbouring Kudal and Sawantwadi. In a way, the saffron alliance has been torn to shreds in Sindhudurg.

There are nail-biting contests in each of Maharashtra’s six regions—Vidarbha, Marathwada, north Maharashtra, west Maharashtra, Konkan and Mumbai. In the following pages, THE WEEK gives a bird’s eye view of the battles that could influence the electoral war.