With just two days left for the campaign, Union Minister for Heavy Industries and NCP nominee from Bhandara-Gondia constituency Praful Patel tries to appear as relaxed as possible. At the first village he visits on the penultimate day on Monday, Patel receives a thunderous response. In the next one, however, it’s a picture in complete contrast.
He makes it a point to stop his swanky vehicle at every group of men and women and extends his hand out of the window for a shake. “Kay kasa kay? Ya ikde ya (how are you doing, come here, shake hands). The people, girls in particular, look thrilled.
But with a massive caste mobilisation being projected as his BJP rival Nana Patole’s numerically invincible asset, is Patel really relaxed from within? The BNCP leader says he is confident of sailing through, but is perhaps aware that he has a tough battle on cards against sitting BJP MLA from Sakoli constituency, despite the latter being no match for his (Patel’s) high-profile stature. Hence, he is toiling hard like never before. Wife Varsha, son Prajay and daughter Purna, too, have joined him in campaign.
In 2009, Patel defeated Patole, who had then fought as an Independent after the BJP gave ticket to Shishupal Patle, by a margin of over 2.5 lakh votes. Patle, who had defeated Patel in 2004 by a thin margin, lost his deposit last time.
The BJP has this time worked out a challenging arithmetic of three powerful castes — Kunbi, Powar and Telis — together said to be accounting for about 4 lakh votes in an electorate of 16.5 lakh. There are some other castes like Kohlis and Lodhis that traditionally favour the BJP. Patole, a Kunbi, and Patle, a Powar, were not on the same side till recently. Senior BJP leaders, however, managed to get the Powars on board this time.
The constituency has just about 50,000 Muslims and some of their votes are likely to go to Aam Aadmi Party’s US-returned software professional Prashant Mishra. The BJP says there is Modi wave and the Congress workers grudgingly accept to be facing the “parivartan (change)” mood, if not a Modi wave.
Patel’s cordial relations with Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi are well-known, giving rise to strong speculation that Modi spared Patel by not holding a rally in Gondia, despite coming till Balaghat, just a few miles away.
Patel himself is not vilifying Modi in his speeches like his boss Sharad Pawar has now begun to do. He only talks of development, which many believe is his greatest strength and the best bet in the wake of a tipping caste balance. He has brought a BHEL and an Adani group project, pushed Gosikhurd rehabilitation package of Rs 1,200 crore, as also the Bawanthadi project and the Rajiv Gandhi Flying Academy, apart from a host of other government health schemes for the poor.
His national fame also invites a lot of awe and admiration. Hundreds can be seen at his palatial residence in an otherwise chaotic and decrepit city even on busy days and Patel directs his staff to take care of them.
Patole dismisses the development talk. “Look at the roads and the bad sanitary system in Gondia. What has he done for that?” When reminded Gondia has many local bodies led by the BJP, Patole switches gear: “This election is for choosing the Central government.”
Patole is holding small rallies and village-level campaigns because that is where his caste strength lies. Patel, however, dismisses the caste factor. “I don’t know where this perception has come from. You will see I will win with a handsome margin,” he says. He also seeks to discount the Modi wave, though his workers admit to facing the caste and “parivartan” mood hurdle.
The Patel camp is banking on Dalit votes, local political observers say the Dalit votes this time are going to be divided between Patel and rebel BSP candidate and filmmaker Moreshwar Meshram. Some would also go to official BSP nominee Sanjay Nasre.
A frequently heard opinion is that the people are also angry with the team of his trusted lieutenants, who have become arrogant. Patel’s own ground-level workers, too, say that.
With three of the six Assembly segments with the BJP, Patel badly needs his own three to bail him out. Says Gondia Congress MLA Gopal Agrawal: “Our leader Soniaji has directed us to work for him. I can assure you, his largest margin would come from Gondia.”
Patel’s clout with the Congress president is such that she has come here to campaign for him in all elections since 2004.