At 76, Vilas Patil-Undalkar looked firmly settled as a Congressman until he decided to open a new battle front in Karad South in western Maharashtra. The seven-time MLA has made up his mind to dump the Congress, of which he has been part for more than five decades, and go into the election as an independent candidate.
He will take on Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, with whom he shares a rivalry that goes back three decades. The Undalkar camp, which fondly addresses the veteran as “Kaka”, has vowed to send Chavan packing to Delhi.
Supporters bought a nomination form on Monday and he will file his papers on September 27. “The moment he does that, Undalkar’s victory becomes a forgone conclusion,” says Hanumant M, who has worked with Undalkar for two decades.
Supporters say “Kaka” has vowed to defeat the chief minister, though he does not say so in public. “Kaka’s son Uday was implicated in a murder case [the victim was Sanjay Patil, a wrestler] by Chavan’s government. Uday has been in jail for two years. This has hurt Kaka, and the world will see the fate of the chief minister,” says Hanumant.
When Chavan became chief minister and was looking for a seat to enter the assembly, Undalkar was apparently pressured to resign from Karad South and refused. Such efforts then and now have been made through other Congress leaders, with Chavan staying out of it, say Undalkar’s supporters. “I have not spoken to him for a long, long time… we are not on talking terms,” Undalkar told The Indian Express.
The relationship had soured apparently in 1983 over the election to the Satara District Central Cooperative Bank, won by Undalkar’s group. Since then, he has been associated with the bank in various capacities. What sets Undalkar apart from others, say his supporters, is his accessibility — though he does not use a cellphone. “He steps out at 8 am and returns only in the night. He is always among the voters, so where is the need for a cellphone?” says his daughter-in-law Suchitra, 38. Undalkar has two grandchildren.
“Patience is his greatest virtue,” says Ashok Thorat, a sugarcane farmer who has followed Undalkar’s career for 35 years. “All efforts were made to provoke Kaka by implicating his son, but he has kept his cool.”
Until Saturday, Undalkar was stressing he was a dedicated Congressman who would not leave. He was, nevertheless, moving from village to village to assess the “mind of the voter” and collect donations for his campaign. “You should see it to believe it,” says Thorat. “Wherever Kaka has gone in the past few days, people have flocked to him. And whenever Kaka asked whether he should contest once again, there has been an instant chorus of yes.”
Undalkar, a law graduate, has served twice as a minister, from 1992 in the Sudhakarrao Naik government and from 1999 under Vilasrao Deshmukh. Says Thorat, “He comes across as a politician with immense knowledge, qualities that appeal to the rural folk in Satara who generally run down people who become affluent too quickly.”
Undalkar himself says, “Development is my life’s agenda and I have never deviated from that path. Had I focused on politics like other politicians do, I don’t think the people would have voted for me repeatedly.”
Undalkar, who owns a 70-acre farm in Satara, is an early riser who practises pranayam for half an hour before setting off on his interactions with voters. His breakfast consists of a glass of milk and a boiled egg. “He loves fish, which we serve him almost every day,” says Suchitra Undalkar. He invariably ends up eating a meal, however, at the home of one voter or the other. “Many times, he eats only once at home,” says Suchitra.
Undalkar does not suffer from any illness one might associate with others his age, his supporters say. “Even at 76, Kaka walks like a youth of 30,” says Hanumant.
From the chief minister’s camp, his wife Satvasheela Chavan has been leading the campaign. “I have been campaigning in Karad South for some time now,” she told this paper when she was in Pune recently. Many believe the chief minister’s “disconnect” with the masses can go against him. “His family has always lived in Delhi… they have had little connect with the masses here,” admits a Congress leader.