When the Congress-NCP picked Hidayat Patel to contest from Akola, not only did he become the ruling combine’s sole Muslim candidate in Maharashtra, but the decision added communal undertones to caste-based voting the constituency is known for. Deep-rooted caste loyalties – known as the ‘Akola Pattern’ of voting – define this western Vidarbha district that struggles with lack of water, poor train and road connectivity, and low revenues for cotton farmers.
Two-time sitting BJP MP Sanjay Dhotre from the majority Maratha community is confident of wining this time too, despite poor performance as an MP for a decade. “The majority community in Akola has always voted for the BJP, the Modi factor notwithstanding,” he said.
In 2009, Dhotre had polled 2.87 lakh votes against 2.22 lakh votes by Babasaheb Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar of the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM). Akola is the political centre for BBM where it is in majority at the zilla parishad and municipal corporation levels. Congress holds only one of the six Assembly segments here, the rest held by BJP, Sena and BBM. Of the 16.42 lakh voters, 3.75 lakh are Maratha, 3 lakh backward-class, and 3.6 lakh Muslim.
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A BJP stronghold since 1989, the constituency was wrested by Ambedkar in 1998 and 1999, with Congress’s support. The Congress fielded its own candidate in 2004 and 2009, splitting the non-Maratha vote and leading to Dhotre’s victory. This time, the Congress tried forging an alliance with Ambedkar, but he refused. “The party had just used us to come to power,” he said.
While the main battle is expected to be between Dhotre and Ambedkar, the entry of a Muslim candidate has made the fight triangular, and perhaps easier, as some in the BJP say, for Dhotre to win. “The Congress has fielded a weak candidate. They have done this merely to ensure BBM’s loss, which ultimately helps us,” said a BJP office bearer.
Anand Balode, an NCP corporator from Akola, thinks otherwise. “Repercussions of the 1992 Mumbai riots were amongst the strongest in Akola, and smaller riots and curfews are common even today. The Congress-NCP combine has fielded a Muslim here for the first time after 1980. If the Muslim vote gets consolidated in his favour with a view to keep Modi at bay at the Centre, situations may change,” he said.
The Congress is banking on the “clean” image of 54-year-old Patel, a local cooperatives leader and former vice-president of the district Youth Congress committee, who won the zila parishad elections in 1992 but lost the Assembly elections from Akot in 2004. “This is the first time in my 35 years of political career that I have seen Congress and NCP working so closely. No one is angry and we are working with good coordination,” he said, adding that “his biggest aim is to solve farmer-related issues”.
Campaigning in the Akot taluka last week, Prithviraj Chavan appealed to the crowds to vote for Patel. “I appeal to people to set aside caste biases while voting,” he said. Shirkrushna Bondre, 65, who was part of the crowd, was unimpressed. “I am a Hindu and a Maratha. There is no way I will vote for anyone else,” he said.