Over four years ago, BJP’s Pritam Munde set a national record with her victory margin at a bypoll necessitated by the demise of her father Gopinath Munde. As another election approaches, the NCP, which did not field a candidate for the bypoll, is running a belligerent campaign ensuring that the contest for the Beed Lok Sabha seat will not be a cakewalk for the Mundes this time. The constituency will vote on April 18.
The eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation began earlier in the year with a series of local NCP leaders joining the BJP in Beed. As recently as last week, former Maharashtra minister and a top NCP leader in Beed, Jaidutt Kshirsagar, visited Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray. Kshirsagar, sidelined within the NCP for some time, reportedly held a meeting along with his family members — also active in politics in Beed — with the Thackerays, setting off speculation about the family’s plans ahead of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly polls later this year.
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As if in response, the NCP promptly announced that Shiv Sangram MLC Vinayak Mete, who currently supports the BJP government in Maharashtra, will support the NCP in Beed. Mete, who enjoys the status of a minister of state in the state government as chairman of a committee formed to oversee construction of a memorial to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai, declared to much confusion that he is still with the BJP, but would oppose the Munde family in Beed.
As an NDA constituent, the Shiv Sangram may be a bit player, but it has been at the forefront of emotive issues around the Marathas, and can channel some of the community’s disappointment with the state government against Pritam.
For a district that is among Maharashtra’s poorest, ravaged by cyclical drought and lack of development, the political discourse is focused on personalities and conflicts among them, including family feuds – sisters Pritam and state minister Pankaja Munde, their cousin and leader of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, Dhananjay Munde. While Mete is reportedly miffed at missing out on a ministership, former NCP leader Suresh Dhas, who lost to Gopinath Munde in 2014, is now with the BJP.
“Nobody talks about real issues any more. There is a serious fodder crisis for those dependent on livestock for their livelihood, the water crisis is acute. And Marathas are very angry with the government for there is a sense that we were cheated on the issue of reservation. It appears that the law will not stand in courts. But the conversation around the elections in Beed is only about dynasties, defections, disloyalty,” said Amol Jadhav, a Maratha and owner of 20 acres in Kaij taluka, who also writes on the region’s political affairs.
Marathas and Vanjaris are the largest voter groups in the constituency, each numbering about 5 lakh voters. The Mundes, who belong to the Vanjari community, are expected to sweep that segment. The votes of the Marathas, as well as of the Dalits and Muslims, are likely to be split down the middle.
“The farmer community is with me,” NCP candidate Bajrang Sonawane said at a recent public meeting. Sonawane is Beed’s district president for the NCP, a Zilla Parishad member, and a farmer. He talks at every meeting and rally about the other major issue that has remained long-neglected in the constituency, that of a railway line to Beed from Parli.
Sonawane does not fail to mention the railway line, stressing that the powerful Munde family has failed to bring railway connectivity to Beed city, and that the long-delayed Ahmedngar-Beed-Parli line will be commissioned in two years if he is elected. Pritam and Pankaja have formulated a punctilious campaign plan and are spending long days on the road in a district where afternoon temperatures are currently in the 42-43 degrees Celsius range.
Meanwhile, as emotive pleas hold sway in the campaign, for the 19 lakh voters of the district, water remains the most critical issue. In Chaklamba village in Georai taluka, farmers held a relay hunger strike for over a week in March to push for their demand — a simple sub-canal that can bring water for their crops.
“This year, there is no rabi crop anywhere in the 110 villages of Chaklamba, Dhonrai and Bodhegaon circles here,” said Machhindra Gawde, a district coordinator of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, which was leading the relay fast. The 16 villages in Chaklamba circle are currently supplied water entirely by tankers, and residents report every anticipated outcome of the drought from migration to erosion of assets. The village also witnessed 10 farmer suicides in the last five to six years.
That narrative is lost in the NCP-BJP face-off in Beed, doubly significant for both parties for the coming Assembly elections. In the 2009 state elections, barring Parli, which was won by Pankaja, the remaining five segments in Beed were picked up by the NCP.
In 2014, barring Beed Assembly segment that was won by Jaydutt Kshirsagar who was then with the NCP, the remaining five were won by BJP. In Beed, the slugfest between two dynasts will outlast this election.