In 1984, when there was a Congress landslide, one of the 404 seats it had won was Indore. That was the last time the party saw a winning candidate in the city. In 1989, Sumitra Mahajan defeated incumbent Prakashchand Sethi. Since then, Indore has sent Mahajan to the Lok Sabha eight consecutive times.
This time, Mahajan, the Lok Sabha Speaker who turned 76 in April, is out of the fray, and the Congress is hoping to win back the city after 30 years.
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The BJP is confident that its new candidate, Shankar Lalwani, will win with the support of cadres, but there is a slight nervousness. “He does not have a grip on rural areas,” said Ankit Mukati (26), a BJP worker.
Mukati is part of the Khaati community, who are predominantly rich, landed farmers. Mukati said the Khaatis are upset as the ticket was not given to a member of their community, which has a larger base than Sindhis, to which Lalwani belongs.
His family — like a large part of the Khaati community which has more than 4 lakh votes in the Lok Sabha constituency — has mostly been voting for the BJP, he said. Sitting in his family’s bungalow in Bijalpur village just outside Indore city, Mukati said that Lalwani might win but with a very narrow margin.
Bijalpur is in Rau Assembly segment, one of eight Assembly seats in Indore parliamentary constituency. Another reason for Mukati’s uncertainty is that the Congress won four of these seats in the 2018 Assembly elections.
In neighbouring Pipliya Rau village, Subhash Verma, a 60-year-old farmer, said people would go back to the BJP because the “Congress government hasn’t waived farm loans”.
Radheyshyam Kumawat, who lives in the same village and drives an auto, disagreed. He said the Congress had indeed waived the loans of small and poor farmers. He claimed to know “at least 15” beneficiaries. The 48-year-old said the BJP could win Indore due to the Modi factor, but he was hopeful of “badlaav” (change).
In BJP’s Indore office, the belief was Indore would have gone with the BJP even without Modi. BJP’s city president and former MLA Gopikrishna Nema dismissed apprehensions of any community being upset, and stated that Mahajan’s work in the city spoke for itself.
Nema attributed the party’s defeat in four Assembly seats in 2018 to complacency of the MLAs. But, realising the mistake, Nema said, “we started working on the ground three months ago”. He pointed out Congress candidate Pankaj Sanghvi had lost to Mahajan 20 years ago.
Indore, with 23 lakh voters, has 3 lakh Marathis, 2.5 lakh Brahmins, 3 lakh Muslims and a significant Gujarati Jain vote bank. With Mahajan’s exit, not just Marathi, but even Gujarati-Jain votes are expected to split.
But the BJP is making use of Mahajan to win back voters. BJP campaign manager Arvind Khotekar said that of 110 public meetings of the BJP, Mahajan was present in almost 100.
Sanghvi, a social worker, has been going door-to-door for votes, in contrast to the BJP’s grand road shows with camels, horses, musical bands and carriages. Sipping coconut water during the campaign to ease his kidney stone pain, Sanghvi said, “If we stand a chance to win, it is now. There is difference this time, since tai is not contesting.”
Lalwani disagreed, claiming the Modi wave was stronger in Indore. “People will vote for development. Since our PM is Gujarati, we expect to win Gujarati votes. The winning margin will be bigger,” he told The Indian Express.