In 2014, he was defeated by a political novice on his home turf of Solapur, the textile hub of Maharashtra. It is something Sushil Kumar Shinde, 77, still finds it difficult to believe, especially for someone who hadn’t been defeated since 1978. It hurt him to the extent that he decided to live up to his pre-poll promise of taking political “sanyas“.
Come 2019 and Shinde, a former chief minister of Maharashtra and Union Home Minister, seems to have emerged out of his self-imposed retirement with what looks like his avowed objective to avenge his political humiliation. In 2014, in his own words, he was “careless” and “took his opponents and victory” for granted and paid with it dearly. He seems to have learnt his lessons the hard way. This time round, he is taking no chances.
On Saturday, while on a campaign trail, one thing became clear: Shinde is desperately looking for one more innings. Even in the sweltering heat of over 40 degree in this perennially drought-hit district, Shinde looked like a candidate possessed. “Shinde-saheb”, as he is popularly known among the people in entire Solapur district, broke away from the security ring as he moved swiftly from one rally to another. Shinde, who enjoys a Z plus security, freely interacted, mingled, shook hands and blessed young voters and the Congress-NCP cadre. The crowd seemed to love his presence.
This was quite far drawn from the 2014 elections. Then Shinde was was closely guarded by his security personnel on the account of him being a union minister. He was seen campaigning by maintaining a safe distance with the voters as the security personnel prevented anyone from getting close and personal with him. This showed in the poll results when Shinde was humiliated by Sharad Bansode, who won with a massive margin of over 1.5 lakh votes.
Meanwhile, at his first rally of the day in Kamthigaon in Mohol taluka, an NCP stronghold, Shinde was supposed to arrive around 9.30 am. Outside the rally venue, Congress and NCP workers wait in the searing sun after bursting a few crackers. Inside the venue, chairs are half empty, but those seated stay put. A dhol-tasha party stationed outside the venue performs in fits and starts. The wait gets longer but the locals do not seem to mind. “We will wait till Shindesaheb gives his bhashan…I want to hear him speak,” says Tatyasaheb, an elderly villager refusing to give his full name.
As Shinde’s cavalcade arrives around 10.30 am, the dhol-tasha tempo rises a few nothces, party workers and leaders scamper around Shinde’s vehicle. With folded hands, Shinde steps out of his vehicle, puts his arms around the shoulders of a local leader and greets those milling around him. Before taking to the stage, Shinde spends a few minutes with the local leaders.
As the show begins, the venue is begins to fill up and there is not a single empty chair in sight. Those who could not find a chair, plonk themselves on the side margins.
As Shinde begins his speech, he says he is still clueless as to why he lost. “Mala ajun he mahit nahi me ka harlo… (I still do not know why I lost..),” he says. A middle-aged man rises from his seat and says they (voters) did not defeat him. Shinde smiles and gestures to the gentleman to sit down.
Gathering himself, Shinde then reveals why the Congress government was voted out of power. “Our then UPA government was unsparing on those who were accused of corruption. Some ministers were asked to resign. But no charges were proved against them in the courts. However, during the 2014 elections, an atmosphere was created that the UPA government was corrupt. Modi discussed it everywhere…we lost our power and were taught a hard lesson,” he says.
Shinde then lists out, what he says, the lies of the BJP’s “star” campaigner. During 2014 elections, Shinde said, “Modi promised that his government when it comes to power will purchase Solapur handloom and textile for paramilitary forces. However, not a single metre of the yarn was purchased. Modi went to Shirdi and praised Solapur jackets. But he did not know jackets are not made in Solapur. He then inaugurated the Solapur highway work and tom-tommed about his government’s achievement. Actually, the UPA government had initiated the work and yet he claimed credit for it,” he says, and adds “Modi has, therefore, earned the sobriquet of a Feko PM.”
Recalling the Godhra incident of 2002, Shinde said,”When we were saying that the then Gujarat CM was a murderer, Atalji said ‘rajdharma ka palan hona chahiye‘ meaning Modi should resign. But Advaniji stood rock-solid behind Modi. And now in 2019, the same Advanji has been asked to stay at home and has been denied the ticket as well.”
Under Modi, claims Shinde, all democratic institutions have taken the hit. “Be it RBI, CBI or the Supreme Court, they have all taken the hit,” he says. Our democracy, he says, is clearly in danger. “If he (Modi) is selected, democracy will make way for dictatorship. Voters should decide whether we want our democracy to survive or hand it over to a dictator.”
Shifting the target to his Opponent Prakash Ambedkar, who heads the Vanchit Bahujan Agadh, Shinde says: “Prakash Ambedkar has tied with a communal party like MIM. Even Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar who fought for communal harmony all his life must have been shocked in the heavens as to what his grandson was up to ?,” he says, adding that Prakash Ambedkar has nothing to do with Solapur.
They (rivals), he says, play politics of caste and religion. “I have never done this. I am candidate of a secular party. I have never brought my caste into the election ring. I have been twice elected from a general seat despite being a Dalit,” he says.
As the rally winds up, Shinde quickly gets down from the stage and gets into his waiting SUV. As his entourage — six to seven vehicles, one of which is of security personnel — leaves Kamthigaon, it heads for Begampur, some 15 km away. On both sides of the road, vast swathes of barren fields indicate the severity of drought in Solapur district. Barren farms, dry water bodies and empty roads are a common sight.
At a luncheon hosted by a party worker in Begumpur, Shinde tells The Indian Express that he is not worried about Prakash Ambedkar.
“I met him early morning before coming here at a hotel. We came face to face but did not speak a word,” he says. “I am not worried. He will only eat into some of my votes. There are some 4 lakh Dalit votes out of 18 lakh voters. Prakash Ambedkar will get mostly Buddhists votes because he is making an emotional appeal to them,” he says, adding that the speculations that Ambedkar was playing into BJP hands prove right in Solapur.
When asked about why all candidates have forgotten about the water issue in Solapur, Shinde said: “It was during my tenure, the direct pipeline from Ujani dam was laid. The second pipeline work is stuck. I will get it speeded when re-elected.” Solapur city and rural areas get water once a week.
At the luncheon, Shinde joins his party workers for an animated conversation, mostly discussing how the rivals have done nothing for Solapur and yet are seeking votes. After lunch, Shinde joins for a photo op with the local Muslim family which has prepared the meal which included “mutton rassa.”
Yasmeen Chowdhary, one of the family members, said,”Shinde-saheb is popular in Begumpur. We have always voted for him and will do so even now,” she says.
Shinde’s team then heads to Ankoli village, a few kilometers away. It’s 2.30 pm. There is no stage or even chairs. Under a shed, the leaders sit on mattresses and take part in a baithak. Villagers, mostly elders, occupy the open ground unmindful of the blazing sun beating down. The ground is interspersed with concrete platforms and big stones. Shinde, however, keeps his speech short because of a bad throat. When he is done, a group of youngsters promise Shinde that they would ensure maximum voting from the village.
Shinde’s charisma, says Solapur ZP member Shivaji Sonawane, is all pervasive. “He is admired by youngsters and elders alike for his knowledge, his experience and for the posts of CM and Union Home Minister that he held. He is not a rabble-rouser like his opponents are. Neither does he use harsh words against them. He is cool and silent, some call him Modern day saint,” says Sonawane.
In most of Shinde’s rallies in Solapur, the former Minister almsot never forgets to praise hi NCP chief Sharad Pawar. “When everyone opposed me in 1998, it was Pawarsaheb who stood by me and got me fielded from the open category Solapur seat which I won. From police inspector to a minister and a chief minister, I owe my success to Pawarsaheb,” he says.
Leaving nothing to chance, Shinde as a parting shot makes an emotional appeal to his voters at his rallies,”This will be my last election and will do everything possible for Solapur.” Only a few in Solapur buy into this as they have heard it so many times before.