As campaigning in Pune and Baramati Lok Sabha constituency concluded on Sunday, two days before the two seats go to polls on April 23, it is perhaps the voters who heaved a sigh of relief, especially with the two seats expecting a direct contest between the key alliances.
While political parties led no holds barred campaigns in Baramati seat, which is expecting a direct contest between the NCP and the BJP, the usual aggressiveness seemed to be lacking in the Pune seat. Incidentally, both BJP and Congress had struggled to find a suitable candidate for Pune and announced their candidates at the last minute
For the Congress, names of probable candidates like Prithviraj Chavan, Suresh Kalmadi, Pravin Gaikwad, Arvind Shinde, Abhay Chhajed, Ulhas Pawar and Balasaheb Shivarkar were speculated for a long time, before the party propped Mohan Joshi from the seat. Apparently, the Congress leadership had wanted Chavan to contest on the seat, however, he had declined saying he would contest the Assembly election from Karad later this year.
For the BJP, right from the beginning, sitting MP Anil Shirole appeared to be out of contention, even as the names of Girish Bapat and actor Madhuri Dixit were floated. Bapat, many in the BJP believed, was the ideal candidate, given his vast political experience and connect with masses.
Initially, the NCP was trying to hold on to the Pune seat, arguing that it had performed better than ally Congress in the post-2014 elections. The NCP was apparently looking to field party chief Sharad Pawar from the seat in a bid to open the “floodgates” to western Maharashtra seats.
The Congress, however, refused to let Pune seat go from its kitty, saying the party will lose its identity and presence in the district as other three Lok Sabha seats in here were also being contested by the NCP. Amid the political heat, the BJP took the lead to field district guardian minister Girish Bapat. As the Congress dilly-dallyed, Pravin Gaikwad quit the Sambhaji Brigade to join the Congress ahead of the ticket distribution. The party, however, finally opted for long-time loyalist Joshi. Apparently, Chavan, had favoured Joshi over the other front-runners.
Compared to Bapat, Joshi got fewer days to campaign as the Congress announced his nomination only in the first week of April. In contrast, the NCP was never in doubt about its candidate from Baramati. Two-time MP from the party, Supriya Sule, also the daughter of NCP chief, had started campaigning probably much before any other candidate did in the country.
The BJP, however, had a problem picking its candidate here as its ally Mahadeo Jankar-headed Rashtriya Samaj Paksha insisted on contesting on the seat, as it had done in the past. Eventually, the BJP put its foot down arguing that Baramati seat was lost last time because its symbol “lotus” was not used.
Jankar had contested in 2014 and put up a spectacular fight against Sule, whose margin of victory from 2009 had come down drastically by 2.5 lakh votes. This year, the BJP seems to have turned Baramati into a prestige fight, going “all out” to wrest the seat. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis himself has held at least five rallies, urging voters to unseat the Pawars. State Minister Chandrakant Patil, who is the number two in the Fadnavis-led Ministry, was asked to closely monitor the party’s campaign here.
BJP president Amit Shah, who addressed a rally in Pune recently, said Baramati was part of their “Mission 45 seats” in Maharashtra. On Friday, the BJP chief addressed a massive rally in Baramati where he urged voters to “uproot” the NCP from the constituency. However, the BJP’s move to field Kanchan Kul, wife of RSP MLA Rahul Kul, had left many puzzled in the constituency. Considered to be a “low-profile candidate”, Kul is also a relative of Sule. With her nomination, there was also speculation over why the BJP had not given the ticket to Mahadev Jankar, who was desperately seeking to defeat the Pawars on their home turf.
“I will speak about this later,” was all Jankar said, skirting question from the media on the issue.
Speculation also piqued over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed rally in Baramati. Modi had been attacking NCP chief Sharad Pawar all through his rallies elsewhere in the state, however, his proposed rally was cancelled. The PM instead addressed one in neighbouring Madha seat.
In Baramati, Sule had found herself in the eye of a storm after an audio clip, where she was purportedly heard threatening an NCP leader who had joined the BJP, went viral. Sule not only denied making threats, but also threatened to file a defamation suit against the leader. Usually calm and composed, Sule also seemed more aggressive in her speeches this time as she warned the chief minister of unseating him in his Nagpur Assembly seat.
“She was nervous… She feared losing the seat,” a BJP leader had then said.
Compared to Baramati seat, campaigning in Pune constituency did not generate much heat. Bapat and Joshi, BJP leaders claimed, played a “friendly match”. BJP leaders said they believed that by fielding Joshi, Congress had handed over the seat to them on the platter. Congress leaders, however, said they were confident that Joshi will spring a surprise and BJP will be forced to eat its own words.
As the campaigning ground to a halt on Sunday, candidates claimed that they were ahead of the others in wooing the voters. “My election was taken over by voters and workers. I am cent per cent confident of winning the seat,” Joshi said. Three former CMs, including Prithviraj Chavan, Sushil Kumar Shinde and Ashok Chavan had campaigned for Joshi besides senior party leader Anand Sharma, NCP chief Sharad Pawar, and NCP leaders Ajit Pawar and Nawab Malik.
BJP’s city president Yogesh Gogawale, however, said: “Bapat’s victory is a forgone conclusion as the Congress struggled to put up a strong candidate. Congress lacks organisational base.” Pointing out that the BJP’s organisational network was too strong in Pune, he said, “Though we were denied corner meetings, we reached out to voters through scores of ‘samvad yatras’,” he said.
In Baramati, Kanchan Kul too claimed that she was confident of unseating Sule. “There is anger against the sitting MP. Wherever I went and met voters, I received an overwhelming response.”
Sule, on the other hand, said she was winning for the third consecutive time. “For 10 years, I have put in a lot of hard work for the development of my constituency. I have requested the voters to consider me for the work that I have done.”
— inputs from Ajay Jadav