NANDED’S Member of Parliament Pratap Patil Chikhalikar has one of the shortest speeches among those campaigning for the Assembly elections in the state. In village after village, he asks what the residents need, and then makes a case for BJP candidate Bapusaheb Deshmukh Gorthekar, his friend for decades and until recently Nanded district chief of the NCP.
“The Congress candidate was your chief minister but couldn’t get a barrage built for you then. Now, the Prime Minister is from the BJP, the chief minister will be from the BJP once again. I am your MP, also from the BJP. Now it’s up to you to decide who you think is best suited to get your work done,” he says. The unscripted interactions follow a pattern — a glowing mention of Gorthekar who is campaigning elsewhere, a jibe or two at Congress candidate Ashok Chavan and the promise that he, the MP, will himself look closely at villagers’ grievances. In many villages, Chikhalikar also visits a home, either for a cup of tea or to offer condolences to a bereaved family.
The 57-year-old first time MP, who has contested 16 elections since being elected sarpanch in the late 1980s, caused a major upset when he defeated former chief minister Ashok Chavan at the Nanded Lok Sabha poll this summer. With Chavan returning to defend his home bastion of Bhokar at the Assembly polls, currently represented by his wife Ameeta, Chikhalikar has pitched it once again as his own battle with Chavan, a former associate when a young Chikhalikar worked with Shankarrao Chavan and later as a close confidant of Vilasrao Deshmukh.
“The way things worked in Nanded for very long was that any strong opposition to Chavan would be scuttled at the outset. This time it is not so,” Chikhalikar says. Bhokar received the maximum number of nominations at 91, and 84 withdrew on a single day. The BJP camp is smug about the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi and BSP candidates in the fray — they are expected to poll 8,000-10,000 votes each, denting a traditional Congress votebank.
At Mendhla Khurd village, Chikhalikar tells the gathering that the BJP is expected to win over 225 of the 288 seats. “Does anyone in the village even say Ram-Ram to the one ZP member who is not from the majority group?” He says he is visiting as “your MP, your representative in Lok Sabha”.
Advocate Kishore Deshmukh of Ardhapur, who is coordinating the BJP’s campaign in the taluka, says Chikhalikar’s followers now comprise of one third BJP cadre, one third former or current Shiv Sainiks — as the MP was elected MLA of Loha on a Sena ticket — and one third others who have no specific party allegiance but are simply his loyal supporters. On the other hand, Chikhalikar says, Chavan has lost touch with his voters, who have not taken a liking to Ameeta Chavan, and is now nervously doing the rounds of villages and hamlets including those that voted against him this summer.
Residents of Ardhapur taluka, until recently believed to be a strong Congress stronghold, are caught between an appealing BJP campaign and their traditional support for the Chavans. “There is some sympathy also for a former CM whose political survival is at stake here,” says a resident of Mendhla Khurd. This village, like nearly 30 others in the taluka, need access roads and minor weirs urgently, says another resident.
While Chikhalikar is campaigning extensively in Bhokar and a couple of other constituencies, he is avoiding Loha-Kandhar from where he was elected in 2014. His son and daughter were prospective BJP candidates and the family faced a setback when the seat was kept with the Sena. But Chikhalikar’s brother-in-law Shyamsunder Shinde, a retired IAS officer, is contesting as a Peasants and Workers Party candidate. Chikhalikar’s son and daughter have both been seen at their uncle’s campaign events. The MP is also said to be close to Dilip Kandkurte, the Nanded BJP chief, who resigned and is in the fray as an independent in Nanded South, where the Sena has fielded Rajshri Patil, wife of former MLA Hemant Patil who was elected MP from Hingoli.
In Ardhapur, meanwhile, Chikhalikar makes a final plea, almost as if he were the candidate himself again. “Do the unthinkable this time and defeat them. We can do miracles here.”