When Rahul Gandhi chose the low-profile Mahad constituency in Konkan to flag off his campaign for the party, it was not only an attempt to invoke the legacy of the capital of Shivaji’s Maratha empire, but an effort to get a foothold in a region where the odds are stacked against the Congress like never before.
Traditionally, these 15 seats in the districts of Sindhudurg, Ratnagiri and Raigad in coastal Maharashtra have always been the stronghold of parties such as the Shiv Sena, the NCP and the Peasants and Workers Party. Then there is Konkan strongman Nayaran Rane, who maintained his sway over the region even after he defected from the Sena to the Congress in 2005. Today Rane’s popularity has hit a trough and the only other Congress legislator, Prashant Thakur from Panvel, is now contesting on a BJP ticket. With its alliance partner NCP no longer around to help it keep its head above water, the Congress is on a rocky road with the only consolation being a fractured mandate because of the Sena-BJP split.
The rise of the Sena in Mumbai four decades ago paved the way for the party’s dominance in Konkan which was once the mainstay of socialist parties. In 1995, the Sena in alliance with the BJP had reduced the Congress to merely two seats in the then 18-seat region, and it was this sweep that largely helped the alliance unseat the Congress.
The fortunes of these 15 assembly seats have been inextricably linked to Mumbai since the city’s booming textile mills started drawing the largely unemployed youth from these regions. With subsistence agriculture and fishing providing little source of income, the villages survived on the money the migrants sent back home. Today farming and fishery have found markets locally and outside but the “money order economy” still remains the mainstay of the region as the tourism potential of the verdant coastal region has remained underutilised and processing facilities for agricultural produce and industries have been sub-optimally developed.
Raigad, 7 seats
Cong 1 (MLA now with BJP); PWP 3;
NCP 2, Sena 1
The district has no dearth of pressing issues but the battle lines are mostly drawn on caste lines when it comes to voting. The locally-strong PWP has its vote base in the Agri community that is mostly into farming and salt production in Pen, Uran and Alibaug while the Maratha community is divided between the NCP and the Sena. The Kunbi samaj, known for being NCP supporters, forms the majority in Shrivardhan. NCP leader Sunil Tatkare is the MLA here and after his defeat to Sena’s Anant Geete in the Lok Sabha elections this year, he has passed on the mantle to his nephew Avdhoot Tatkare. The fact that Tatkare was the cabinet minister with the water resources portfolio has done little to alleviate the water crisis in the region where it is common to spot school girls carrying water pitchers on their heads even as strewn about everywhere are unlaid water pipes to link with a dozen-odd dams. “The water from these dams is supplied to Navi Mumbai and to industries but the locals struggle every day. There are also issues regarding opposition to the acquisition of agricultural land for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial corridor and for SEZs or the land rights of the adivasi population here. However, there is no issue-based campaigning anywhere in the region,” said activist Ulka Mahajan. The PWP hopes to benefit from the Sena-BJP split.
Ratnagiri, 5 seats
Sena 3, NCP 2
The Congress was never a favourite in this district and then the 2011 police firing against poor fishermen protesting against the Jaitapur nuclear project turned the tide against them even from a traditional base such as the Muslim-dominated Sakhari Nate fishing village in Rajapur. The Sena, which during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections promised to scrap the project, has now tweaked its appeal for votes to say that it will be more equipped to do so if it is voted to power. The locals know that in a BJP-majority central government, this might be nothing more than an empty promise. “But what choice do we have? With the Congress pushing for the project, Sena at least has an anti-plant stance and has supported our andolan,” said fishermen’s leader Mansur Solkar.
Dapoli, where legislator Suryakant Dalvi will be contesting for the sixth time, is considered safe for the Sena. So is Chiplun to an extent. Intriguing fights will be between the NCP and the BJP in Ratnagiri and Guhagar.
Sindhudurg, 3 seats
BJP 1, Cong 1, NCP 1
During the Lok Sabha polls, before Narayan Rane’s elder son and then sitting MP Nilesh was trounced by Vinayak Raut, the Congress’ campaign pamphlets carried photos of Rane and his family, including his infant grandson. The undercurrent of dynastic politics upset not only voters but also several local Congress workers. Rane will stand for his seventh MLA elections from his bastion of Kudal-Malvan while his son Nitesh will contest in Kankavali.
In Sawantwadi, always an NCP stronghold, the Congress is not even viewed as a contender. Former NCP legislator Deepak Kesarkar has jumped over to the Sena, Rane’s aide Rajan Teli will contest on a BJP ticket while Parshuram Uparkar, Rane’s friend-turned-foe from his erstwhile party Shiv Sena, is an MNS candidate.
After 24 years of being an MLA from Kudal, Rane seems on a shaky wicket against the Sena’s Vaibhav Naik. The former’s name had figured in the list of accused in the 1991 murder of the latter’s uncle and Youth Congress leader Shridhar Naik, a charge he was later acquitted of. After the Lok Sabha rout, Rane’s pitch is set on the development plank, a leaf out of the Modi book.
But much of the district has already been swept by anti-Rane anger. The main grouse has been his failure to bolster industries and generate jobs in the district whose literacy rate is 86.54 per cent.
Nitesh Rane blames it on the “second line of leadership”. “The disconnect with grassroots workers and the common man was due to such leaders working against the interest of the party,” he said.