While the uncertainty over the announcement of the BJP candidate from Pune has ended with the nomination of Girish Bapat on Saturday, the Congress is continuing the suspense on its part as it is yet to name a candidate. As the BJP has fielded Girish Bapat, a Brahmin candidate, it is likely that the Congress will nominate Mohan Joshi, its Brahmin face.
“We believe it is a race between Mohan Joshi and Arvind Shinde. Both are at the forefront. The name of the candidate may be declared by Sunday morning,” said Congress spokesperson Ramesh Iyer.
The prestigious seat will see a direct fight between the BJP and the Congress. The Pune Lok Sabha seat has been in the limelight for almost six months. No other Lok Sabha constituency in Maharashtra has been discussed, and its candidates have remained undecided, for such a long period.
The seat is crucial for both the Congress and the BJP. It has traditionally been won by Congress candidates, but this year the BJP will go all out to retain the seat, which it won by a margin of 3.5 lakh votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. The big names that cropped up among the ‘likely candidates’ from Pune over the last few months include Sharad Pawar, Suresh Kalmadi, Prithviraj Chavan and even actress Madhuri Dixit.
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The names of builder Sanjay Kakade, who is an associate member of BJP and a Rajya Sabha MP, and Pravin Gaikwad of Sambhaji Brigade have also been mentioned in this context.
Though there were initially only murmurs, the fact that the Pune Lok Sabha constituency was a major bone of contention between the Congress and NCP emerged, loud and clear, only after the two parties sat down for seat-sharing talks. Despite repeated rounds of discussions, the state leadership of both parties failed to reach a conclusion on four seats, one of which was Pune. They then left the decision to the central leadership of the party.
During the discussions, both parties staked claim for the Pune seat. While the Congress said Pune has been its traditional bastion, the NCP insisted that the seat should be allotted to it for the first time due to changing political dynamics in the area. The party pointed out that the Congress had lost the seat by a massive margin of 3.5 lakh votes to the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The Congress argued that in the state assembly elections in October 2014, its total vote count was 3,000 more than that of NCP’s. Party leaders also said that if they didn’t get to contest from Pune seat, the identity of the party in the district would be in peril. “Our existence in Pune district will be in danger. Of the four seats in Pune district, three are already with the NCP. If Pune is also allotted to the NCP, the Congress will disappear from voters’ minds… we will have no identity,” said Congress spokesperson Ramesh Iyer.
The NCP’s sudden demand for the Pune seat can be explained by the fact that party leaders wanted Sharad Pawar to contest the seat, in a bid to consolidate his political grip on voters across western Maharashtra, the only region in the state where NCP fares better than the Congress.
“Fielding Sharad Pawar from Pune seat would have sent out positive signals among voters in western Maharashtra, which we intended to capture… had Pawar contested the seat, it would have been won hands down,” said an NCP leader. However, with the Congress refusing to relent, the NCP finally gave up its claim.
Madhuri Dixit’s name was floated by the BJP camp, after a meeting between the actress and BJP chief Amit Shah in Mumbai. Neither the BJP nor Dixit commented on rumours about her being a possible party candidate from Pune.
The rumours came at a time when the BJP had already started searching for a suitable candidate since party leaders believed sitting MP Anil Shirole’s performance was not up to the mark.
“The Pune seat, like other constituencies in the district, is crucial to us to stamp our presence in western Maharashtra,” said BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari.
Besides Dixit, the BJP was also looking at District Guardian Minister Girish Bapat, who comes from the Brahmin community that has a major presence in the central part of the city. While Sanjay Kakade did stake claim for the seat, he fell out of favour after he began hobnobbing with NCP and Congress leaders.
The Congress, meanwhile, shortlisted senior leaders such as Mohan Joshi, Abhay Chhajed, Balasaheb Shivarkar, Ulhas Pawar and Arvind Shinde as likely candidates for the seat. The state leadership finally forwarded two names, Joshi and Chhajed, to the high command. While Joshi has contested the Lok Sabha elections once, and lost, Chhajed has never contested.
After their names failed to find a place in the final list, Shivarkar and Shinde directly approached the party leadership. Joshi and Shinde are now the frontrunners in the race for the Congress ticket, said party sources.
Earlier, the state leadership of the Congress wanted Prithviraj Chavan to contest from Pune, but the former chief minister refused to do so. “I will contest in the assembly election from Karad, I am not contesting from Pune even though my name is doing the rounds,” Chavan told The Indian Express.
Sharad Pawar had reportedly met Congress President Rahul Gandhi to push the name of Pravin Gaikwad, who heads the Sambhaji Brigade, the outfit that was in the forefront of the Maratha reservation agitation. “My name has been suggested by Pawarsaheb to Rahul Gandhi…I am waiting to contest on a Congress ticket,” said Gaikwad.
The Congress has good reason to take its time and choose a strong candidate to take on the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. The Pune Lok Sabha seat includes eight assembly constituencies — Kasba, Cantonment, Shivajinagar, Parvati, Kothrud, Wadgaonsheri, Khadakwasla and Hadapsar — all of which were won by BJP candidates in the 2014 assembly elections.